Stadium vote lands before elections board

Saturday, August 8, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

The legal battle over whether Hamilton County voters can decide where to put a new baseball stadium is now up to a decidedly political board to sort out.

On Monday, the four members of the county Board of Elections will rule on the validity of the unprecedented petition initiative. If put on the ballot and passed, the measure would create a Hamilton County charter that would prohibit county commissioners from building a new Reds ballpark anywhere but Broadway Commons, the site at Broadway and Reading Road.

Board members won't have much law to guide them.

"The law is nonexistent on the subject," said Frances McGovern, a retired lawyer and former state representative from Akron who helped Summit County form its charter government.

"Charters are normally used to change the form of government. Obviously, this is being used for a unique purpose," Miss McGovern said Friday. "I think it's very ingenious. But whether it's legal or not, I just don't know."

Lawyers on both sides have filed arguments with the board of elections, citing Ohio's laws and constitution to explain why the question should be placed on -- or kept off -- the ballot.

The board must wade through the arguments and vote Monday. Officials expect the losing side to file a protest with the secretary of state's office, which would then be asked to rule.

"I think in the end we're all going to have to make a judgment on this," said Tim Burke, chairman of the four-member board of elections and of Hamilton County's Democratic Party.

"I think it's probably going to be a tough call," added Mike Allen, a member of the board of elections and chairman of the county Republican Party. "It certainly is uncharted territory."

Politically speaking, the decision is a lose-lose.

"Nobody wins, everybody loses," said Stephen Bennett, a political science professor at the University of Cincinnati who has been watching the issue.

The question, he said, comes down to whether the board of elections is "going to reflect what is the opinion of a large bloc of noisy voters."

The board itself is a political group, with two Democratic members and two Republicans. The second Democrat is Daniel Radford, executive secretary-treasurer of the Greater Cincinnati AFL-CIO Labor Council. The second Republican is Eugene Ruehlmann, former county party chairman.

The debate over the stadium siting has not followed strictly partisan lines. So far, the lawyers filing objections to the petitions are Republican stalwarts.

Opponents argue the Broadway petitions don't truly create a charter; rather, the vote is an illegal attempt to hold a referendum on the commissioners' decision to build a new ballpark on the riverfront.

Hamilton County commissioners Tom Neyer Jr. and Bob Bedinghaus, both Republicans, voted last month to approve a tentative stadium deal with the Reds to build a new ballpark just west of the Crown at a site known as Baseball on Main or the "Wedge." County officials estimate the ballpark and site preparation will cost $297 million.

But in a memorandum filed Friday, Donald Mooney, a lawyer for the Broadway Commons group, said the challenges put forth sound "more like the opening salvo in an election campaign than a legitimate attempt to address issues of petition validity that can be addressed by the Hamilton County Board of Elections."

So far, opposition to the effort has come in two letters -- one from lawyers Bill Seitz and Joseph Trauth and another from lawyers Nelson Schwab, Robert Kreidler and Bruce Hoffman.

Mr. Mooney argues that the elections board has a narrowly defined responsibility in determining whether to place the issue on the ballot, which does not include ruling on whether the Broadway group is using the charter provision in state law appropriately.

"That is an issue that can be decided by the courts when, and if, the voters adopt the charter," Mr. Mooney wrote.

Mr. Bedinghaus said he looks forward to a campaign that pits Broadway Commons against the riverfront because he thinks he can persuade voters the riverfront is the better choice.

Cincinnati City Councilman Jim Tarbell, a leader of the Broadway Commons group, said it will stress that "they call it the Wedge for a reason and Broadway is beautiful."

On Friday, Mr. Bedinghaus threw Cincinnati's plans for a series of large riverfront parks into the political mix.

He argues without both the Reds ballpark and the Bengals stadium on the riverfront, the county can't sink $100 million into riverfront parking garages. Without building the garages, he said, the county will have to use parking lots. That means there won't be land available for riverfront parks, he said.

Mr. Bedinghaus argued the stadiums, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center and the expansive riverfront parks could be the "postcard that makes Cincinnati an exciting place to visit."

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