CINCINNATI - Moments after Cincinnati City Council agreed to a 30-year lease of the city's parking system, a judge issued a temporary injunction to stop any further action before a group of residents has its say in court.
The injunction request was filed by a group of residents that include Pete Witte, Alicia McQueen, John Brannock and others. Judge Robert Winkler issued the order at 4 p.m. Wednesday.
A hearing on the citizen lawsuit is set for March 15.
Cincinnati City Council voted 5-4 to approve the lease Wednesday afternoon.
Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls and Council Members Cecil Thomas, Yvette Simpson, Wendell Young and Laure Quinlivan voted in favor of the lease agreement.
Council Members Charlie Winburn, Chris Seelbach, Christopher Smitherman and P.G. Sittenfield opposed the decision.
But council then added an emergency clause to the plan in a 6-3 vote. That means the measure could take effect immediately, and also would legally prevent a voter referendum against it.
Seelbach provided the sixth vote needed for the emergency clause.
Mayor Mark Mallory said the emergency clause was not added "to stifle the voters' ability to reverse the decision at the polls." Rather, council needed to have a budget plan in place by July 1, and the legal work needed for the lease needs to start now to meet the deadline.
Smitherman sharply disagreed with Mallory's assertions.
"To depict this vote as any kind of routine vote, this vote has huge implications of 30 to 50 years," Smitherman said.
Also, he called the decision a "short-term fix" to avoid a deficit for one year, similar to City Council's use of one-time payment from Convergys to balance the budget in 2012.
Simpson said opponents were using scare tactics about the plan. She said council had done its due diligence, even though the proposal was introduced just 15 days ago.
"We need to continue to make investments in growth, it works... We can't let fear cloud our judgment, we have to lead through it," Simpson said.
After council approved the plan, City Solicitor John Curp said it was unlikely a lawsuit against it would prevail in court.
"I don't believe the court will interfere with these ordinances that have been passed by emergency clauses," Curp told council.
Shortly thereafter, Hamilton County Common Pleas Judge Robert Winkler issued the temporary injunction.
"The Court has not had occasion to visit the merits of the Complaint," it stated. "However, it is black letter law that 'the constitutional right of citizens to referendum is of paramount importance,' and courts liberally construe municipal referendum powers so as to permit rather than to preclude their exercise by the people."
Under the proposal, the city's parking meters would be leased to the Port Authority for 30 years, while the city's parking lots and garages would be leased for up to 50 years.
The Port Authority would then hire two private firms to handle daily operations. Xerox Services would manage the meters, while Denison Parking would manage the lots and garages.
In return, the city would receive an upfront payment of $92 million from the Port. Also, it would get annual payments that would begin at $3 million and gradually increase over time.
Supporters said the money would let city officials quicken the pace of several major development projects citywide. They include a downtown apartment building and grocery at Fourth and Race streets; and an interchange at Interstate 71 and Martin Luther King Drive.
Critics have countered that it lessens public accountability for the assets, and fear that increases in parking rates will hurt small businesses.
Seelbach had told WCPO Digital on March 1 that he wouldn't vote for an emergency clause, which would let the plan be invulnerable to a referendum. Wednesday, however, he said his answer was misconstrued.
Here is the exchange between WCPO Digital and Seelbach from March 1.
WCPO: "I have heard that even if only five (members) pass the plan, they can still use a sixth vote for an emergency clause, and thus make it immune from a referendum. Would you be willing to provide that sixth vote?"
Seelbach: "I believe in 'up or down' votes and won't agree to any backdoor tactic to prevent that. If the votes aren't there, they're not there. I will be voting no."
At Wednesday's meeting, Seelbach said, "I see the effort to try to get four members to vote no on emergency as a backdoor tactic that I won't support."
Later, in a text message to WCPO, he added, "Everyone always does. Regardless if they vote no on item."
WCPO Digital held a live blog from Wednesday afternoon's council meeting and it can be viewed here: http://live.wcpo.com/Event/Council_to_vote_on_parking_proposal .