Federal judge sends parking case back to lower court

Judge decides not to dismiss claim entirely

CINCINNATI - A federal judge Friday morning ordered a case challenging the legality of Cincinnati's lease of its parking system back into Common Pleas Court.

The action means opponents of the lease have another chance to argue that City Council's approval as an emergency item was improper, and a voter referendum could occur later this year.

Shortly after City Council approved the 30-year lease Wednesday, a group of citizens filed a complaint in Hamilton County Common Pleas Court alleging council's action was taken solely to thwart a voter referendum on the lease.

On Thursday, city attorneys successfully pushed to move the case to U.S. District Court. They said because one of the counts in the complaint alleged violations of civil rights, the federal court was the correct venue.

Plaintiffs dropped the civil rights count Friday morning. That prompted U.S. District Court Judge Michael Barrett to order the case back to Common Pleas Court. Although Barrett had the option of dismissing the case entirely, he said several precedents indicated he should remand it to the lower court instead.

After the hearing in federal court, both sides appeared in Judge Robert Winkler's chambers at Hamilton County Common Pleas Court.

The city's attorneys pushed for Winkler to vacate the injunction but, after listening to oral arguments, he declined.

A hearing will be held March 15 on a request for a preliminary and permanent injunction to prevent the city's lease from taking effect until a referendum is held.

"Our client's objective all along has been to get this issue before the voters and let them decide," said Chris Finney, an attorney for the plaintiffs. "This will allow the referendum to go forward."

Lease opponents are preparing paperwork for the referendum which they will submit to the city's finance director later on Friday.

Opponents need to gather about 8,500 signatures from registered Cincinnati voters to put the issue on the ballot. To ensure enough valid signatures are collected, they will try to get about 11,000 signatures beginning this weekend, Finney said.

"We need everyone to be patient," Finney said. "We should be out getting signatures for this soon."

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