MILFORD, Ohio -- On the day FC Cincinnati is set to break ground on a soccer training complex in Clermont County, a new lawsuit threatens to derail it.
A lawsuit filed late Tuesday accuses Milford City Council of holding secret, illegal meetings to advance the sale of property to the soccer club, while hiding details of the deal from public scrutiny.
“I’m not opposed to the FCC soccer training facility in Milford,” said Rachel Richardson, a Milford resident and freelance journalist who filed the lawsuit. “But residents should have been part of those discussions … and have a right to know the ways and means by which those decisions were reached.”
Milford city leaders and FC Cincinnati did not immediately return a request for comment.
The $30 million project will replace the current Expressway Park softball complex located near Milford Parkway and Lila Avenue. FC Cincinnati is planning a ground-breaking ceremony on Wednesday afternoon.
The training complex is expected to be fully operational by July 2019. Plans include a two-story facility with a team building, youth academy, grandstands, locker rooms and a turf field.
In July the club entered into an agreement with the city of Milford, Clermont County, Clermont County Port Authority and Clermont County Ohio Convention and Visitors Bureau for the project, which included a 1 percent lodging tax increase.
But long before the deal emerged for the first time at a July public meeting, the lawsuit alleges that Milford City Council had been in secret negotiations for months.
“Residents have had no opportunity to read this (deal), to ask questions … all of the discussions have taken place behind the scenes, illegally, and moreover, they’ve been taking place since February, at least,” Richardson said.
If her lawsuit is successful, it could “invalidate” any ordinance that city council passed illegally and jeopardize the deal with FC Cincinnati, said Richardson’s attorney, Matt Miller-Novak.
This is the second time Richardson has sued Milford City Council. She sued in 2016 over a series of illegal meetings about a hotly contested apartment complex at Milford Main.
After months of legal wrangling, the city settled the lawsuit and paid $36,000 in Richardson’s legal fees. As part of the settlement, Milford City Council members attended remedial training on the state’s open meetings laws, and agreed not to violate those laws again.
But Richardson alleges that Milford City Council did violate those laws again, so now she is seeking to hold them in contempt of court.
She filed the contempt motion on Tuesday, in addition to the new lawsuit. It could prompt a judge to order a financial punishment or a stricter court order against city council, her attorney said.
“After the last lawsuit I was not confident that they wouldn’t violate the law again,” Richardson said. “I felt that - come the next big deal - they would cut corners again to push the deal through.”
Richardson scoured documents the city released to her through a public records request, and said she found proof that city leaders were hiding their deal with FC Cincinnati.
For example, she said a demolition company applied for a demolition permit from the city 11 days before Milford council voted to draft the ordinance on the FC Cincinnati deal.
“That goes to show just how advanced this deal was in its planning stages and just how confident FCC was that the deal would be approved by council,” Richardson said.
She also discovered mentions of a $1 million bridge to lead into the FC Cincinnati complex, and a $500,000 access road that city leaders discussed paying for with tax increment financing. But she found no mention of these issues on public meeting agendas.
“Council is not only violating open meetings laws, now they are violating a court order,” Richardson said.
As part of her 2017 settlement with the city of Milford, Richardson received $500. She donated it to CASA for Clermont Kids, a nonprofit that helps neglected and abused children in foster care.
If she receives any settlement money in this case, she plans to donate it to CASA.
Rachel Richardson is a former WCPO freelancer.