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WVXU has been covering the stories of politics and corruption at Cincinnati's City Hall since early 2020. We have now launched an initiative to more closely examine Cincinnati politics and the individuals who have shaped it, along with the current allegations of corruption. We'll also explore proposals for change, and seek feedback from local leaders and community members on what can be done to restore trust in City Hall.Trust in Local Government, WVXU's Public Integrity Project will analyze our council-manager form of government and the charter amendments designed to reinforce ethical standards at City Hall; take a historical look at corruption in Cincinnati government; talk with the candidates for Cincinnati mayor and continue with an ongoing series of features, interviews and candidate profiles.

Voters Give Cincinnati Council Authority To Suspend Members In Some Cases

cincinnati city hall
Becca Costello
/
WVXU
Cincinnati City Hall

Cincinnati voters overwhelmingly approved a pair of charter amendments related to corruption on City Council. Issues 1 and 2 each got more than 75% approval in the primary election.

"It looks like everybody is sick of the corruption at City Hall," said Council Member Betsy Sundermann, who introduced Issue 2. "This will give us the tools we need to suspend or remove corrupt council members."

Sundermann's amendment gives council the authority to suspend a member indicted on felony charges related to their job on council. It also requires all council members complete ethics training within 60 days of taking office.

Issue 1, introduced by Vice Mayor Christopher Smitherman, will have a special prosecutor investigate when a member is indicted, instead of the city solicitor prosecuting the case.

Both amendments prevent an indicted member from changing their successor designee, which is another person on council who chooses their replacement if they leave office.

The amendments were introduced in response to three council members indicted on corruption charges last year - more specifically, in response to the arrests of Jeff Pastor and P.G. Sittenfeld.

Pastor and Sittenfeld are still on council and receiving paychecks, but agreed to a voluntary suspension from the Ohio attorney general.

Council Member Wendell Young is the most recent indictment. Last month, a special prosecutor charged Young with tampering with records related to the "Gang of Five" text messaging case from 2018.

Sundermann has called for Young to resign. WVXU asked whether she plans to use the new authority to seek a suspension for Young.

"I don't know," she said. "I guess stay tuned, we'll see what happens."

Although they somewhat overlap, the two charter amendments don't conflict; since both received a majority positive vote, both will be implemented into the city charter.

Because they each include a provision about successor designees, with distinct language in each amendment, the measure that received the most votes will provide the language amending that portion of the charter.

Issue 2 received 25,197 "yes" votes, slightly higher than the 24,994 positive votes for Issue 1.

What Issues 1 And 2 Share: Successor Designees

Each amendment includes a provision that prevents a council member from changing their successor designee after they've been indicted on charges related to their job on council.

As it stands now, each council member decides which member or members will choose their replacement if they vacate the office, by resigning to take another job, for example. Typically members can change these successor designees at any time.

Both charter amendments specify a council member can't change their successor designee after being indicted.

Issue 1 Adds A Special Prosecutor

Smitherman's amendment deals with one of the two existing ways to suspend a council member. If citizens file a complaint with the probate court, the city solicitor is tasked with prosecuting the case.

Because the city solicitor's boss is City Council, Smitherman says this presents a clear conflict of interest.

"They could have represented us in a case that they're now asked to take action for removal," Smitherman said. "It just naturally creates this conflict of interest between the legal department and their clients."

Issue 1 would require the city solicitor to instead appoint a special prosecutor to litigate the case against any indicted council member.

Issue 2 Offers A Third Option For Suspension

Sundermann says the city needs a third option to suspend a council member accused of wrongdoing.

"If the current council members [Pastor and Sittenfeld] had not voluntarily agreed to a suspension, we probably would have been in a position where one or both of them would keep showing up every week, proposing legislation and voting on legislation. And that's not good," Sundermann said.

Issue 2 gives council the authority to suspend a member internally.

If a council member is charged with a state or federal felony related to their duties, it triggers a council hearing. This only happens if the charges are job related; that means a council member could be charged with robbing a bank and not necessarily trigger this process.

The accused member would get a chance to plead their case. A suspension would require seven positive votes, a supermajority of the nine-member council (the accused member would not be eligible to vote).

If a member is suspended through this process, a temporary replacement would be chosen by that council member's successor designee.

The suspension would automatically end if the charges were dismissed or the member was acquitted, as long as their term has not ended.

If the member is convicted of a felony related to their job on council, the suspension automatically becomes a full removal.

Issue 2 Requires Ethics Training

Sundermann's amendment has a third provision to require ethics training for all council members within 60 days of taking office.

Currently, ethics training is voluntary and only offered at the start of every regular term. Sundermann points out four current members of council took office in the middle of a term - Steve Goodin (who replaced Pastor), Liz Keating (replacing Sittenfeld), Jan-Michele Lemon Kearney (replacing former councilwoman Tamaya Dennard, who resigned following her own bribery scandal) and Sundermann herself (replacing Amy Murray, who left to take a job with the Trump administration). 

The training would be done through the Ohio Ethics Commission. If a council member doesn't prove the training is complete within 60 days, they would be unable to attend or participate in council meetings, or vote on or introduce legislation.

trust in local government
Credit Jim Nolan / WVXU

 The "Trust In Local Government: WVXU's Public Integrity Project" examines Cincinnati politics and the individuals who shaped it. Read more hereSupport for this project comes from The Murray and Agnes Seasongood Good Government Foundation.