Editorial: Why are decisions on The Banks being discussed behind closed doors?

Editorial: Why are decisions on The Banks being discussed behind closed doors?
Posted at 8:53 AM, May 18, 2017
and last updated 2017-05-18 09:00:37-04

The Banks is 18 acres of valuable riverfront property owned by us, the taxpaying public. It is the front door to Cincinnati, a highly visible housing, entertainment and office district on the Ohio River between the stadiums. And it’s been built with the help of $128 million in tax dollars.

But decisions about this public project are being hashed out in secret.

That needs to change.

A story this week by Amanda Seitz and Paula Christian reported that the group charged with guiding this development has not met in public for two years. But some have met behind closed doors to huddle about the future of the region’s premier development project.

It appears a small group of powerful people, some with obvious personal stakes in the future of The Banks, are calling the shots there without bothering to include the taxpaying public. Even some elected officials and members of their own decisionmaking committee, called the Joint Banks Steering Committee, appear to be in the dark.

Reds owner Bob Castellini and Bengals heir Katie Blackburn, whose teams play in the stadiums that flank The Banks, are both on the committee. (Those stadiums, by the way, were built and have been maintained with more than $900 million in tax dollars.)

Thomas Gabelman, the attorney who, for 20 years has handled the myriad legal matters surrounding the district and billed the county millions for his work, is also a key committee member.

Some committee members met at least four times without public notice to consider significant matters. Those included the possibility of University of Cincinnati’s law school (another publicly funded institution) relocating there.

Mayor John Cranley said he’s not sure whether the steering committee is considered a public body or not.

We think it is.

We agree with Cincinnati media attorney Jack Greiner: “You can’t hide behind a committee.” The committee’s business – the development of this important public property -- should be made known and open to public scrutiny.

Certainly, there will be matters that can be kept private, such as real estate negotiations. But the law still requires that the committee notify the public of when and why these private sessions take place.

Although The Banks is highly developed, decisions still need to be made, decisions that will shape our city’s front door and skyline. The public’s input is needed, and we hope, would be sought.

This is a problem that Cincinnati City Council and the Hamilton County commissioners can easily fix. They appoint the members of the steering committee. They should demand that the committee publish a schedule of meetings, provide adequate notice of each meeting and the agenda and conduct its business in the open.

By many measures, The Banks and its surrounding projects have been a success. It’s developed into what planners envisioned more than 20 years ago: an entertainment destination, a community gathering place, a cool place to live and work.

But unless decision makers do their work in public, it is fair to ask this question: What are you trying to hide?