CINCINNATI - Cincinnati City Manager Milton Dohoney Jr. is defending his decision to withhold from City Council a highly critical memo of a 30-year lease of parking meters and garages, which has angered some council members.
Although council is currently on its summer break, two members have said they will ask for a special session soon to discuss Dohoney’s action.
As WCPO Digital first reported Sunday, city administrators received the memo June 20 from Walker Parking Consultants. The memo stated operating expenses and management fees included in the city’s controversial lease are excessive.The report remained undisclosed to City Council and to the public until sources began discussing its existence.
Read the memo at http://tinyurl.com/njus9el
In an email response to questions submitted by WCPO Digital, Dohoney confirmed the June memo wasn’t shared with City Council until Monday, a day after WCPO received the memo and published a copy.
It was within Dohoney’s discretion not to share the memo about the evolving and controversial parking lease deal with council, his email stated.
“The city administration has spent hundreds of hours going through many, many scenarios on this parking deal,” Dohoney wrote. “A deal this complicated demands that every possible issue be raised as part of the due diligence. The Walker memo was part of that process.
“Ultimately, it is up to the administration to bring forward for council’s consideration the best deal it recommends. That is what we did,” Dohoney added.
' Lack of Transparancy Is Unforgivable'
His response didn’t sit well with some council members.
“There is no question that it absolutely should have been shared with council and the public,” said Councilman Wendell Young, a lease supporter.
“I find it outrageous that the administration asked me to make a decision without providing all the information, while leading council to believe that this was not the case and that everything was in front of us,” Young added. “This lack of transparency is unforgivable.”
Meanwhile, three council members who opposed the lease – P.G. Sittenfeld, Christopher Smitherman and Charlie Winburn – also were angry about not getting the memo.
“The fact that our own city administration would intentionally keep vital information from council is outrageous to me,” Sittenfeld said. “Public trust means everything and it’s earned though transparency, not by hiding information when it doesn’t support your given agenda.”
Winburn wants to hold a special council meeting this week or next to discuss the issue with Dohoney.
“I think this speaks to performance issues about the city manager,” Winburn said. “The bigger issue is this was done in secrecy. That’s a problem because this is taxpayer dollars.”
Smitherman wondered if Dohoney shared the memo’s contents with some council members but not others, which isn’t allowed under the charter. Dohoney insists all council members learned about the memo at the same time.
“We now find ourselves in what looks like a cover-up of critical information from the public and perhaps from some members of council,” Smitherman said.
“The administration needs to answer for their actions on this,” Sittenfeld said. “Whether that answers comes through a special session or another way, it needs to come soon.”
Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls, a lease supporter, said data in the Walker memo was deemed inaccurate by Dohoney and his staff.
"I'm not going to make excuses for the administration, but once you understand that the Walker memo is dated and based upon faulty information, they weren't going to send something to council that they felt was inaccurate," Qualls said.
WCPO Digital sought comment about the memo from all nine council members.
Councilmembers Laure Quinlivan, Chris Seelbach, Yvette Simpson and Pamula Thomas didn’t provide responses.
Qualls, Quinlivan, Simpson, Thomas’ husband -- Cecil Thomas, her predecessor in the council seat – and Young all voted in favor of the lease in March.
Although Seelbach voted against the lease itself, he provided the sixth affirmative vote to enact it as an emergency ordinance, thereby making it immune from a voter referendum.
Cranley, Candidates Want to Cancel Lease
Under the lease approved by City Council in March, the Port Authority will manage the city’s parking meters, lots and garages. The Port, in turn, will hire Xerox Corp. and Denison Parking to oversee daily operations.
The joint effort is collectively known as ParkCincy.
Cincinnati will receive an upfront payment of $92 million from the Port Authority once the lease is fully implemented. T he city would get annual payments that would begin at $3 million and gradually increase over time.
The memo wasn’t given to the Port Authority until July 12, a few days after WCPO Digital’s public records request for the document was made.
“We are disappointed that the Walker Parking memo was shared with the Port Authority nearly three weeks after it was presented to members of the city of Cincinnati Economic Development Division,” said Port president Laura Brunner. “We will work even more diligently to communicate in a timely and transparent manner.”
The Port Authority signed the parking lease June 21, and has 75 days from that date to finalize it or back out, which would put the date sometime in September.
A coalition of Democratic, Republican and Charterite candidates held a press conference Monday afternoon urging the Port Authority cancel the lease and start over.
Democrat John Cranley, an ex-city councilman running for mayor against Qualls, organized the event.
“(The city administration) didn’t share the information with their own client, City Council,” Cranley said. “They didn’t share the information with the public and they didn’t share it with the Port Authority. This is truly an outrage.”
Others at the press conference were Democrats Greg Landsman and David Mann; Republican Amy Murray; Charterites Kevin Flynn and Vanessa White; and independent Kevin Johnson.
Landsman, who said his campaign has knocked on 7,000 doors in 30 neighborhoods, said the parking lease is the main issue he’s been asked about.
“The number one question we get is, ‘Why are we doing this,’” Landsman said. “Literally, the city will pay more and the citizens will get less.”
Lease's Fees High Compared to Other Cities
The Walker memo stated operating expenses for on-street parking are 257 percent higher under the lease than the city’s most recent in-house experience in managing the meters and related costs, the memo states.
Also, the memo states the proposed $627,063 management fee that would be paid to Xerox Corp. in 2013 to operate Cincinnati’s parking meters equals 14.6 percent of estimated net operating income.
That amount is well above the 2.1 percent to 2.3 percent that has been paid to operators in other cities.
The Port Authority released a letter Monday morning refuting the memo’s claims.
Walker was using faulty data and was comparing “apples to oranges” because it didn’t take into account technology upgrades that Xerox would make to parking meters, the letter stated.
But Cranley noted the data Walker used came from the city.
“How in the world could (the Port) be in the position to refute a six-month review done by the world’s leading parking consultant?” Cranley asked.
What Did the Port Know and When?
Brunner’s letter sparked other questions about when it was written and who actually wrote it.
Brunner issued her 2,185-word, five-page letter Monday morning, in response to the Walker memo that was disclosed publicly Sunday night.
Although the letter was dated July 15, it was actually drafted July 12, Brunner said Monday.
But Brunner and Dohoney’s accounts about when the Port Authority learned about the Walker memo’s contents are inconsistent.
Dohoney said the Port Authority was first informed in a telephone call on June 27. Brunner said she first learned about it in an email sent by city staffers on July 5, and got the actual memo on July 12.
“While the memo itself wasn’t shared, its content and issues were brought up in a call with the Port on June 27,” Dohoney said.
Brunner’s account is different.
“The July 5th email mentioned facts brought to the city’s attention by Walker,” Brunner said. “We were not aware that there was an actual Walker memo, though, until the 10 th and we received it on the 12th.”
Meg Olberding, a city spokeswoman, said Dohoney reaffirmed the Port was first informed about the memo on June 27.
“I'm not sure if Ms. Brunner was on the call, but June 27 is when city staff and Port staff talked over the issues raised in the memo,” Olberding said.
Statistics attached to Brunner’s electronic letter, which is a Microsoft Word document, show 26 revisions were made and 887 minutes were spent editing it.
Critics have questioned whether City Solicitor John Curp, who was handling public records requests for the Walker memo last week, actually wrote the letter for Brunner’s signature.
Curp, however, denied the assertion.
“I did not write the letter for Ms. Brunner,” Curp said. “I am not aware that any employee of the city drafted the letter. To the best of my knowledge, the letter is an original production of the Port.”
Lease supporters have said the deal will give the city much-needed cash to quicken several development projects that will help expand the city’s tax base.
Opponents, however, said the lease would cause rate increases and aggressive enforcement that might drive away customers from small businesses.
Under a proposed deal, the Port Authority would issue bonds to pay for meter upgrades, but City Hall keeps control.
This week, Kevin Osborne interviews U.S. Sen Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio).
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