CINCINNATI -- The powerful and public committee that oversees The Banks, a $135 million project owned and funded by taxpayers, has secretly met without notifying the public more than seven times during the last year.
The Joint Banks Steering Committee has held those closed-door meetings – some of them out of the state – while considering crucial recommendations for the future of Cincinnati's riverfront.
WCPO obtained a copy of the committee's schedule Thursday afternoon. WCPO repeatedly requested the documents be released, since finding out the committee secretly met in April, without notifying the public, to discuss bids from developers who want to build a concert venue on The Banks.
The committee is obligated to hold open meetings under state law because Cincinnati City Council and the Hamilton County Commission appoint members to the group – making it a public body.
One Joint Banks Steering Committee member said the secret meetings worry him.
“I know of no reason why we would not be totally transparent,” Charlie Luken, a former Cincinnati mayor and committee member, told WCPO Thursday. “I have felt they could violate open meetings requirements of Ohio law.”
The committee gathered privately seven times between August 2017 and April 2018, according to a list of meetings provided to WCPO.
One of the secret meetings was held from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. October 4 in multiple cities: Cincinnati, Columbus, Ohio, and Pittsburgh. Exact locations for those meetings were not provided.
The committee did not immediately provide meeting minutes, agendas, or explanations for the private gatherings.
PromoWest, one of the concert promoters that submitted a bid to build a new venue at The Banks, operates music stages in both Pittsburgh and Columbus.
In a letter releasing the information to WCPO, Assistant County Prosecutor Roger Friedmann said the Joint Banks Steering Committee hasn’t violated state open meetings or public records laws.
“Rather, the JBSC has continuously strived towards public transparency and compliance with the laws of Ohio,” Friedmann wrote.
When did the Joint Banks Steering Committee secretly meet?
- 2 to 4 p.m. Aug. 30, 2017 at Great American Ball Park
- 10:30 a.m. to noon Sept. 15, 2017 (location not provided)
- 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Oct. 4, 2017 in Cincinnati, Columbus, Ohio and Pittsburgh (exact locations not provided)
- 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Nov. 21, 2017 at Great American Ball Park
- 1:30 to 5:15 p.m. April 11 at Great American Ball Park
- 1:30 to 5 p.m. April 12 at Great American Ball Park
- 10:30 a.m. to noon April 25 at Great American Ball Park
The Joint Banks Steering Committee has operated in the dark, with little public scrutiny, for years.
The committee ejected a Cincinnati Enquirer reporter from its meeting in 2015. A WCPO report in 2017 revealed the committee had not publicly met for two years. Most recently, WCPO found the committee convened privately on April 25 to consider bids from three developers who want to build a concert venue on the city’s riverfront.
Following that secret meeting, WCPO made a public records request on April 26 for all of the private meetings the committee scheduled over the last year.
Tom Gabelman, the private attorney who represents Hamilton County on The Banks project, maintains the secret meetings are legal.
County taxpayers have spent millions of dollars over the last decade on Gabelman’s work for The Banks project. Since 2016, Hamilton County paid $1.05 million to Gabelman’s firm, Frost Brown Todd, according to county auditor records.
Gabelman said the committee has only met secretly in “information gathering sessions.”
“Information gathering sessions are permissible and appropriate under Ohio law, particularly when trade secret, proprietary and/or financial information is presented, and are exempt from various provisions of Ohio law otherwise applicable to public meetings,” Gabelman wrote in a letter to WCPO on April 30.
Luken said he’s raised concerns about those closed-door meetings directly to Gabelman.
“I have warned our attorney about these information gathering sessions,” Luken said via text message. “Tom Gableman continues to advise us we are not violating open meetings law or public records law.”
Luken estimated the group has met in private at least four times over the last year.
In a letter sent to Gabelman on May 17, Michael Farrell, an attorney representing WCPO, demanded the Joint Banks Steering Committee hold future meetings in public.
“Several facts suggest that the Committee’s meeting on April 25 and other meetings held in private went beyond mere information gathering,” Farrell wrote. “For example, the agenda for one ‘information gathering’ meeting allotted two hours for ‘discussion.’ Discussion is not information gathering; it is deliberation that must be done in public.”
In a statement, Gabelman said the information gathering sessions allow the committee to make better decisions for the riverfront's future.
"Prior to and during those sessions, it has been consistently communicated to the committee that information gathering meetings are not the proper forum for discussion or deliberation or voting," Gabelman said in an email. "The proper forum for such deliberation is in a public meeting. “
The Joint Banks Steering Committee is advisory – and only makes recommendations to city council and the county commission on the riverfront project.
But the committee’s opinions are important.
The group includes the city’s most well-known and wealthiest business owners, including Cincinnati Reds owner Bob Castellini and Cincinnati Bengals Vice President Katie Blackburn.
Who sits on The Joint Banks Steering Committee?
- Bob Castellini, president of the Cincinnati Reds
- Katie Blackburn, executive vice president of the Cincinnati Bengals
- Tom Gabelman, Hamilton County’s counsel for The Banks project
- Charlie Luken, former Cincinnati Mayor
- Robert Richardson, Sr., president of the Cincinnati NAACP
- Robert Rhein, CEO of Rhein Interests, a land development company
- Stephen Leeper, president of Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation (3CDC)
- Steven Love, president of SRL Consulting Inc., an economic inclusion services company
Over the last decade, city council and the county commission have unanimously approved the committee’s recommendations on new developments – the AC Marriott Hotel and General Electric’s Global Operations Center, for example – at The Banks.
That changed earlier this month, however, when the committee selected the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra to build an indoor concert facility at The Banks.
Three concert developers – the CSO, PromoWest and Live Nation – all submitted bids to construct a concert venue on public land at The Banks.
Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley publicly pressured the committee to select PromoWest, a Columbus-based concert promoter that manages the Bunburry Festival, a Downtown music festival.
Cranley argued PromoWest is the best choice to develop the concert venue because the company plans to build both a permanent indoor and outdoor concert venue. The CSO, meanwhile, plans to build an indoor facility and has offered to manage outdoor concerts on a temporary stage.
Cranley and Mark Nicol, the largest private investor at The Banks, also worried that the CSO, as a nonprofit, will be exempt from paying millions of dollars in property, income and admissions taxes.
“The reality of selecting CSO … results in a very significant economic trade-off from lost tax and parking revenues,” Nicol wrote in a May 10 letter.
But during a May meeting, the majority of the Joint Banks Steering Committee members voted for the CSO and the CSO’s management firm, MEMI, to develop and run the concert venue.
Gableman pointed out that the CSO’s plan will not eat into park space at The Banks as much as the other two concert venue designs. Meanwhile, Castellini said he preferred to pick a local group for the job.
“We’ve got three good proposals but MEMI is Cincinnati,” Castellini said during the meeting. “Everybody involved in MEMI are Cincinnatians.”
But city council and the county commission still need to vote on which company will ultimately earn the bid.
Five members of council have requested all three developers present their concert venue plans directly to city council before making a final decision.
The next few months could be pivotal for the future of The Banks.
City and county leaders are also expected to pick a new master developer for the project. Last year, the city and county ended its relationship with Atlanta-based developer Carter. Carter had worked on The Banks project since it started, more than a decade ago.