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Friday, October 29, 2010

Cincinnati Councilman Chris Bortz Harassed By Mental Midgets: Ethics Panel Should Toss Complaint In Shredder

Lawyer Ties Bortz To Tracks
CINCINNATI (TDB) -- Somebody should nickname the ethics complaint filed by lawyer Tim Mara a "streetcar named esquire." Because that's what it really is, a rail job by someone licensed to practice law.  Mara wants the Ohio Ethics Commission to remove a Cincinnati City Council member, a move akin to impeachment.  Chris Bortz's sin -- he has performed his public duties.  And it is all about street cars, and misguided allegations that Chris Bortz somehow is secretly taking a range of actions to build a $128 million streetcar project in Cincinnati.  Somehow the secret moves will enrich his relatives.  Bortz has recused himself from all decisions about the streetcars to avoid even the appearance of a conflict.  He has not facilitated a discussion, nor has he voted to build the system.  There is no evidence, not a scintilla, that he has the power or juice -- or to borrow a Chicago term "clout" -- to sway closed-door decisions about how the streetcar project proceeds.  Mara's attack seems designed only to debase an elected official, a mean-spirited swipe akin to the SLAP suits that corporations are notorious for filing against their critics.  Mara may not be abusing process, but the smell is there.

Members of the Bortz family are real estate developers with interests and holdings throughout SW Ohio.  A handful of the properties are near the proposed streetcar line that would run from downtown, through Over-the-Rhine to near the University of Cincinnati campus.  There are many people who believe the $128 million project -- funded by city bonds and federal transit grants -- will be an economic disaster.  Proponents believe it will stimulate commercial development in a largely depressed area.  Truth is, nobody knows for sure what will happen if the streetcars actually start to run.

And that is why the Ohio Ethics Commission should toss Mara's complaint into the nearest shredder.  If they do not have one, The Daily Bellwether will make a donation.  One wonders what is the motivation behind the complaint.  Anti-Semitism perhaps?  The Bortz's are Jewish.  They have a long record of public service in Cincinnati.  They are model citizens, role model citizens.  Nobody knows if the streetcar project will open up the door to commercial prosperity, or if it will be a catastrophe.  Logic is clear -- Bortz cannot be promoting his private financial interests even if he were taking official actions to back a project that might suck millions out of the city budget.  There is no commercial advantage to running an unused, heavily subsidized streetcar through neighborhoods that won't have cops or firemen or building inspectors to enforce the codes.  Mara seems to be on the side that believes the streetcars are doomed to failure, and he said in his formal ethics complaint (filed Oct. 25):

"I believe Mr. Bortz . . . not only has displayed an utter disregard for Ohio ethics laws . . . but a general disdain for the public he is supposed to serve."

Wrong, Mr. Mara.  You contend Bortz is supposed to adopt a policy of complete aloofness.  I say there is no sense of menace, no demonstrated self-dealing that rubs uncomfortably against the public interest.  His family does not have a commercial monopoly over the streetcars, nor does it have a commerical monopoly over real estate along the proposed streetcar route.  And there is absolutely no evidence that the streetcars will become a well-worn path of travel leading to the Bortz family holdings.  Mara's complaint is largely based on a pretension.  For Bortz to knowingly profit from his City Council office, he would have to know the future -- that the streetcar line would make nearly all garrets on the route rented, every chair in every restaurant packed, every garden party tour booked, every property coveted by hungry investors.

Ethics laws in Ohio were designed to eliminate conflicts of interest.  A city councilman, for example, should not vote to purchase goods or services from a company he owns, or has a stake in.  But they were never intended to stop elected officials from promoting the public good in a broader manner.  For example, a council member would be allowed to vote for schools even if he were a teacher, or if his family had someone on the school system payroll.  He could not vote to buy a school from himself or his family -- a bright line conflict.  That is not the case with Cincinnati's street cars.  There is only a chance that streetcars will benefit the city.  If they succeed, there is a chance that some of that benefit could spill over to the Bortz family interests.  But chance is not a guaranteed pay off.

Let's take another angle.  What if there were a fire station at stake?  Would Bortz be wrong to vote to add fire protection in a neighborhood where his family has real estate?  And what if there were a medical disaster -- an outbreak of cholera near the Bortz family holdings?  Would Bortz violate the ethics laws to vote to send medical aid into disease-stricken neighborhoods where the family's commercial interests were located?  Of course not.  With fire halls and inoculations, the public good would outweigh any private interest.

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