On Thursday, October 16, 2008, in Columbus, Ohio, in a face-off between Harold Daub, representing the reform-minded citizens of Portsmouth, and Austin Keyser, representing the Progress Portsmouth Campaign Action Committee (PPCAC), the Ohio Elections Commission voted unanimously in a preliminary hearing that Daub had just cause, which is to say he was justified in charging that the Progress Portsmouth is not telling the truth in ads that claim that the $12 million dollar cost of the City Center and Justice Center (the “Two Centers I will call them) will not require an increase in property taxes.
Those claims by Progress Portsmouth, made in mailings and in numerous radio ads, are gross distortions, if not outright lies. In a scheme that could only have been concocted by a couple of cleverly crooked Portsmouth lawyers, the Portsmouth City Council has increased city property taxes for next year, 2009, from the current .7 mills to 3.8 mills, a 440% boost. That increase is to pay for a fire truck and other improvements in the Portsmouth Fire Dept. While a worthwhile acquisition, the fire truck, in my opinion, is a stalking horse, or maybe I should say a Trojan horse, because what the crooked lawyers have got the city council to do is to promise to extend that one-time, one-year, 3.8 mills Fire Dept. property tax for 30 years to pay for the Two Centers project, provided the voters approve that project on the Nov. 4 ballot.
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In addition to finding probable cause at the Oct. 16 preliminary hearing, the Elections Commission called for an expedited full Commission hearing of the case, so that it may issue a formal public decision before the Nov. 4 election. The reason for the full Commission hearing is that the preliminary hearing uncovered several puzzling claims and inconsistencies in a formal statement Portsmouth City Auditor Trent Williams had issued on October 13. What follows is the relevant paragraph from the Auditor’s memo:
Earlier this year, the City incurred debt to pay for much needed fire safety equipment and included retirement of this debt in its 2009 tax budget with the allocation of approximately 3.1 mills with the Bond Retirement Debt Service fund. This existing millage will be collected from property taxes regardless of whether or not there is a Justice Center/City Center project. However, this millage will be reallocated, continued and used to retire bonded debt that will be issued to fund the cost of the
It is not clear what legal authority the city government would have to continue the 3.8 millage and to construct an “alternate facility” if the Twin Centers are turned down by the voters. Nor is it clear by what authority the Auditor says, in the same Oct. 13 memo, “If the
The tone and point of view of Auditor Williams in his Oct. 13 memo makes him sound like the chief executive officer of the city, like the mayor, or even like the mayor on steroids. Knowing Auditor Williams to the limited extent I do, and being familiar with his prose style, I suspect he did not write this memo, or if he did that it was dictated to him by someone else. Who might that someone else be? It was not the mayor. No, I believe it was written by a lawyer, but not by the only lawyer in the city government, namely City Solicitor Jones. The lawyer who wrote or dictated the memo was more likely a “Philadelphia lawyer,” that is a lawyer more clever by half than anyone currently in city government.
Why the memo was written, if not by whom, is clear. As the opening sentence says, “Over the past several weeks I have had several questions from citizens concerning the financing plan of the proposed Justice Center/City Center and its tax consequences.” But the memo was written not just for clarification purposes; it was written to respond to mounting criticism of the murky financing of the Two Centers project. So the memo had a political objective, which was to provide the Progress Portsmouth Political Action Committee with a legal argument when its representative, Austin Keyser, appeared before the Ohio Elections Commission preliminary hearing on October 16. At least several times at the Elections Commission preliminary meeting, Keyser in defending Progress Portsmouth’s claim that no tax increase was involved, had referred to the Auditor’s Oct. 13 memo. In an attempt to pass the buck, he said it was not Progress Portsmouth but the Auditor who first asserted that the $12 million dollars that was going to be paid for the Two Centers project did not require an increase in taxes.
But those Progress Portsmouth ads were written, broadcast, mailed, and published weeks before the Auditor released the Oct. 13 “clarification” memo. How could a document written after the Progress Portsmouth ads be the justification or legal basis for those ads? Whether the Auditor realizes it or not, it appears he is being thrown to the wolves. Now that the Elections Commission has found probable cause, Williams may be left holding the bag. If the "clarification" the Auditor signed his name to in the Oct. 13 memo is contradictory, murky, or deliberately misleading, it is he who will be held responsible by the people and possibly by the courts. Auditor Williams will have some explaining to do after he receives a subpoena to appear before the Elections Commission.