Another lawsuit threatened related to park levy
by Carrie Blackmore Smith
A State representative from Mount Lookout Thursday threatened a taxpayer lawsuit over city Parks Director Willie Carden’s authorization and disbursement of park foundation funds to pay for the production and design of a website in support of the Issue 22 parks levy.
Earlier this month, Tom Brinkman Jr., R-Mount Lookout, threatened a taxpayer lawsuit over Cincinnati Park Board of Commissioners’ $200,000 donation toward the park levy campaign.
Brinkman dropped the issue when the board rescinded its donation and returned the money to city parks and taxpayers.
According to emails obtained via a public records request, Carden approved $2,200 to be paid for the levy website on June 29. A few days later, Carden authorized spending another $375 related to the website.
“We will pay this through the Parks Foundation,” Carden wrote, telling the foundation’s executive director Jennifer Hafner-Spieser that they could talk about it the next day.
The emails appear to have been on Carden’s city email account.
“Such actions by the director of the Cincinnati Parks Board have clearly violated foregoing prohibitions in City Charter,” the letter to Cincinnati City Solicitor Paula Boggs Muething reads, quoting Article XIII, Section 3, which says that “no monies of the City of Cincinnati or any of its Boards or Commissions, from any source whatsoever … be disbursed to … for the purpose of advocating the election or defeat of a candidate for any public office, or for the passage or defeat of any ballot issue.”
Brinkman has served as a spokesman and chairman of the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes in the past. The group opposes the levy.
Ohio law creates a provision for any taxpayer to challenge its government for “abuse of corporate powers and/or misapplication of funds.”
Muething said Thursday that she had just received the letter and needed time to review it and analyze the claims. Carden said this had been early in the discussion and that the bill for the website was not paid by him but ultimately came from the park levy campaign.
A campaign finance report released last week for the pro-levy campaign, Citizens for Cincinnati Parks, shows that the levy campaign paid $3,466.25 to the web design company, WebFeat Complete, based on Eastern Avenue on Sept. 15, two and a half months after the emails were sent by Carden.
Campaign manager Jared Kamrass said the original invoice was sent to the parks department, but was ultimately paid by the levy campaign. If an earlier payment was made by the Park Board or Park Foundation, Kamrass said he has no knowledge of it.
“We made it clear that every penny of the website needed to be paid for by the campaign,” Kamrass said. “To my knowledge it has.”
He said the amounts likely vary because they had asked for more work to be done and needed to raise the money first in order to pay WebFeat Complete.
There is no record of a payment to Webfeat Hosting in the campaign finance report. This second payment, $375, was to be made out to that entity, according to the emails between Carden and Joyce Kamen, who handles media relations for the parks department.
The relationship between the public Park Board and private, non-profit Parks Foundation is no simple thing. Concerns about the relationship and flow of money between the board and the foundation were initially raised in a 2010 internal city audit, which was never finished nor publicized.
The Board of Park Commissioners is a public body that includes five members, all appointed by the mayor. The board has the power to hire or fire all parks department employees.
Members of the board for the private Parks Foundation nominate their own members, but final approval is given by the public Park Board. The nonprofit’s offices were located in Park Board offices for years. They moved recently to another building, also owned by the Park Board.
In a previously publicized case, Carden and Marijane Klug, the parks department’s second-in-command, were cited in 2013 by the Ohio Ethics Commission for accepting bonuses directly from the Parks Foundation between 2004 and 2010. They paid the money back and quit their roles with the foundation.
The ethics settlement stated that Carden received a total of $61,073 between January 2005 and December 2010, while Klug received $37,174 between December 2004 and December 2010. Carden paid back $30,536 and Klug returned $18,587, or the net amount they received after taxes.
But other details about the situation were kept confidential per the settlement agreement and Ohio law. No criminal charges were filed.
In an interview earlier this month, Klug said the Park Board and Parks Foundation are distinctly different organizations.
Board funds and foundation funds “are totally separate,” Klug said. “No funds are co-mingled.”
Brinkman filed his suit under a provision of Ohio law that requires that a taxpayer give the municipality or county government the chance to act and reverse the action in question.
“I hereby request that you, as City Solicitor, make application to a court of competent jurisdiction for an order of injunction … as well as the recovery of such funds on behalf of the City of Cincinnati,” Brinkman wrote.
Otherwise, Brinkman’s attorney Curt Hartman said his client is prepared to file a lawsuit in Hamilton County Common Pleas Court.
Enquirer reporter James Pilcher contributed.