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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.

Reform Panel Urged To Make Development Recommendations Stronger

cincinnati city hall
Becca Costello
/
WVXU
Cincinnati City Hall

Cincinnati's Economic Development Reform Panel heard feedback from a few people Friday on its draft recommendations. City Council formed the panel in response to three council members indicted for corruption last year, although the panel was tasked with examining the development process as a whole.

The panel's draft recommendations say council members and the mayor shouldn't be able to accept campaign donations from a developer once their project is sent to council for a vote.

Over-the-Rhine resident Danny Klingler says that prohibition should start much earlier — during negotiations, a process that can take months or years as a project goes through various approval steps like City Planning. 

"Once that application is made … I believe strongly we have to draw that line," Klingler said. "Or else we're going to be right back here having another reform committee three years from now, because that problem will not have been addressed."

The panel has discussed the campaign contribution issue at length, and the majority of members are not in favor of a lengthier prohibition for active developers.

"I strongly agree with Mr. Klingler," said Guy Guckenberger, former council member and county commissioner. "As I've said before, until you take the incentive to 'pay to play' out of the mixture, you're not going to get real reform."

Panelist Dan Schimberg, president of Uptown Rental Properties LLC, said a longer prohibition would prevent career developers like him from ever donating to candidates.

Former mayoral candidate Raffel Prophett said the panel should recommend more clear definitions of how each part of city government — council members, the mayor and the city manager — plays a role in development deals.

"[You] specifically stated that council should not be involved in negotiating on the development process, but for whatever reason the mayor, who is also an elected official, was left out of those comments," he said.

Prophett said a lack of clearly defined expectations paved the way for corruption at City Hall.

A legal opinion from the City Solicitor's Office earlier this year said the charter (as amended to a "stronger mayor" form of government in 2002) does allow the mayor to be involved in negotiating development deals. Some critics, like Council Member Wendell Young, say that's not an accurate interpretation.

West Price Hill resident Laurie Hamilton says the panel should address how many ordinances are passed with an emergency clause.

"These circumvent the charter's mandate of three readings on three dates, 30 days to enactment of the ordinance, and the public's right to a referendum," Hamilton said. "Nearly all development ordinances are done this way. They weaken the ability of council and the public to scrutinize or challenge development deals in this city."

Deputy city solicitor Emily Smart Woerner said the charter has two separate concepts: one is the three readings requirement, and another is that the default enactment for an ordinance is 30 days. Council can vote with a supermajority (7 of 9 votes) to waive those requirements to pass an ordinance with just one reading, and to have it go into effect as soon as it's signed by the mayor.

(Note: this is why there are three votes on many ordinances — first to suspend the three readings requirement, second on the ordinance itself, and third to allow the ordinance go into effect as soon as it's signed.)

Smart Woerner said it's true the majority of ordinances in recent years have been passed with an emergency clause.

"For some things, it is time sensitive that we pass things, there are hard deadlines to them," she said. "And for other things, it is a matter of efficiency. But that's all under the council members control whether those are included or not."

The draft recommendations include a confidential hotline to report misconduct, and a code of conduct for city officials and developers. See a summary of the recommendations below.

The panel is still accepting public comment by email to edrp@cincinnati-oh.gov. The final report is due to council by Aug. 1.

Council is not obligated to follow any of the recommendations.

EDRP Summary of Recommendat... by WVXU News