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'How Far Can We Go?': Anti-Corruption Development Panel Starts Plotting Its Course

City of Cincinnati
The new Economic Development Reform Panel met virtually for the second time Friday, February 26.

Cincinnati's director of community and economic development says some interaction between council members and her department can be inappropriate. Markiea Carter briefed members of the new Economic Development Reform Panel at its second meeting Friday.

Carter says her team has about 300 active projects at any given time, and something as simple as a council member calling to check on the status of a negotiation can influence the process.

"How can we ensure that that influence is not undue, or it's not impacting other projects that are just as important, but may not have that voice," Carter said.

Former Hamilton County Democratic Party Chair Tim Burke, one of the panelists, says council members might be making those calls because of public questions.

"My concern is, this panel was created because of alleged criminal activity," Burke said, "and I want to make a huge distinction between alleged criminal activity and a council member attempting to respond to constituents."

'How Far Can We Go?'

Three council members arrested last year were charged with accepting bribes from developers in exchange for supporting a project.

Burke has signed a public letter in support of one of those arrested council members: P.G. Sittenfeld. The letter points out that Sittenfeld directed donations to a PAC instead of pocketing the money. The letter writes, "if his behavior is in any way criminal, then every current mayor, governor, and member of Congress and every person who has ever run for political office is similarly guilty." 

Burke said during Friday's meeting he's looking forward to the discussion about campaign donations to public officials.

"How far we can go in controlling contributions by certain people is, for me, an open question at the moment," he said. 

One of the panelists, Uptown Rental Properties President Dan Schimberg, defended his right as a developer to donate to candidates he believes in. 

"I live in Cincinnati, I pay property taxes, I pay earnings taxes, my family lives here. And for me to not be able to support someone running for council who I think is a highly intelligent, great person to put on council, who I think is really good for the city, feels peculiar," Schimberg said. "It's a peculiar piece for someone living in the city of Cincinnati versus someone living in Indianapolis, a developer from outside of the city limits, it's a peculiar piece. And it's going to warrant more discussion." 

Schimberg recently donated to a fund for Mayor John Cranley's likely campaign for governor, according to the Cincinnati Business Courier

The group is tasked with reviewing the entire development process, including how much — if at all — council members should be involved.

The Mayor's Role

Another component is how involved the mayor should be. Council Member Wendell Young has questioned Cranley's involvement.

For his part, Cranley says the city charter is clear.

"I don't really believe that there's good faith disagreement as to what the roles are," Cranley told WVXU earlier this week. "The city manager as well as city solicitor have issued multiple memos that clarify that the mayor has a role in development, but it's limited. And there are critics out there who are pretending as if the mayor of Cincinnati is a strong mayor, executive mayor, [and] that's just not the case. We have a hybrid system of a stronger mayor, but not a strong mayor. And there's no confusion on my part or the city administration."

Council Member Chris Seelbach voted against confirming Cranley's appointments to the panel. Seelbach said Tim Burke is a "close friend and ally" to Cranley; he also objected to the inclusion of Bobbi Dillon, Cranley's former chief of staff. Seelbach was the only dissenting vote.

A Desire For Public Input

The panel met for the first time two weeks ago, without fanfare or publicity. At Friday's meeting, members discussed how to best solicit feedback from the public. Chair Ann Marie Tracey says they may schedule a virtual public hearing sometime in April.

"And then as we are fine tuning things a little bit more and starting to develop recommendations, or thinking about recommendations, having another public hearing then," Tracey said.

The recommendations are due by Aug. 1.

The group's next meeting is March 12, which will include presentations from the Ohio Ethics Commission and the Ohio Elections Commission. The panel will meet every other Friday at 1 p.m. 

The meetings are streamed live on CitiCable. The panel is asking for public feedback via email: edrp@cincinnati-oh.gov. More information, including agendas and minutes for each meeting, will be posted on the city's website: https://www.cincinnati-oh.gov/council/references-resources/economic-development-reform-panel/