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Cincy Officials Praise Recommendations Of Economic Development Reform Panel

Cincinnati City Hall
Jason Whitman
/
WVXU
City Hall as seen from Plum St. in Cincinnati, Ohio, Wednesday, May 12, 2021.

Cincinnati City Council will soon consider reform recommendations from a panel aimed at restoring public trust in the economic development process. Some say the recommendations don't go far enough to fix a system that led to three council member indictments last year.

The now-familiar story started last year with the indictments of Tamaya Dennard, Jeff Pastor and P.G. Sittenfeld. City officials were desperate to change the perception that City Hall has a "culture of corruption."

Council Member David Mann led the effort to create the Economic Development Reform Panel; Mayor John Cranley appointed the nine members, later confirmed by City Council. The panel met 17 times between February and July.

The group's final report has several recommendations, including a new code of conduct for elected officials and developers; enhancing the city's whistleblower hotline; and prohibiting campaign donations from developers with active business before the city.

See the full report below; story continues after.

Panel Chair Ann Marie Tracey says the recommendations are comprehensive and designed to be enacted as a whole.

"You inform people, you train people, you require reporting of misconduct, and the whole ball of wax goes together to make it work," Tracey said.

She said the panel largely agreed on each recommendation. The biggest area of dispute related to campaign donations; one panelist wanted a much stronger prohibition, and a few members of the public agreed with him.

Mann says the panel did good work and he's pleased with the recommendations.

"It makes clear that developers, too, have responsibilities," Mann said. "That it's not okay to entice, lawfully or otherwise, council members or department directors to do something that's inconsistent with what we're looking for."

The panel heard from experts and shared their own experiences in city government and development. Tracey says they also asked to hear from average Cincinnatians, without much success; two public comment hearings included a total of eight speakers, and only six emails from the public were sent to the panel.

"We really had very little public input," Tracey said. "However, the public input we did receive was really important and for the most part went really to the heart to some of the issues."

Chanda Monroe-Williams owns a small consulting business and served on the city's Community Development Advisory Board for ten years. She told the panel in April it's not easy for new developers to get started, because it's more about WHO you know than WHAT you know.

Looking at the panel's recommendations a few months after speaking, she's disappointed.

"It just seems like a lot of wasted time. And I don't want to be disrespectful to the panel, because I know there's some really great people on the panel, people that I respect, but it just seems like the task at hand wasn't truly completed," she said. "And the recommendations were basically status quo. There is nothing in here that's transformational. That's going to change what has been happening."

Monroe-Williams says the panel should have looked at actual contracts and talked to more people not already involved in development.

Panel members say they don't have the expertise to undertake such a task. Council recently authorized an audit of the last three years of development deals; the panel's report asks for the results of that audit to be made publicly available.

Monroe-Williams says the panel also should have looked outside of City Council in their evaluation.

"In corporate America, we would say if a CEO allows corruption to happen in their organization, we get rid of the CEO," she said. "But nobody has questioned how the mayor, or the city manager, or assistant city manager, or director of procurement — nobody has questioned their role in this publicly. That's not a personal attack, that is a business conversation. How did it happen on your watch?"

Reforms are underway. City Manager Paula Boggs Muething has made significant changes since taking the job last summer, aimed at addressing concerns like the ones Monroe-Williams brings up.

Boggs Muething says the city charter clearly defines governmental roles, but there's been a slow erosion of those principles over time.

"Where we had gone astray is that we had council members who were involving themselves in administrative matters, in things that are very clearly within the administrative function under the charter," she said.

Among the changes is a new Office of Constituent Affairs in the City Manager's office. In part, it's a way for council members to stay out of contract negotiations by redirecting developers who contact them for help.

Boggs Muething says it's not just about avoiding corruption.

"We have never had the ability to aggregate our customer and constituent concerns, and then to monitor the response to those, to track how we're doing, to use that information to further improve customer service across departments," she said.

An online portal for council members to submit constituent concerns recently launched; eventually, that portal will be available for all Cincinnati residents to use directly.

The Economic Development Reform Panel praised these administrative changes and endorsed the City Manager's approach.

Council Member David Mann says he's excited about the new regulations and eager to put the panel recommendations in place.

"The injury to public trust is so severe that all the words in the world and all the legislation in the world can't immediately repair it," Mann said. "I think the more important thing is, how we act, and what our track record is going forward. So it's going to take some time."

Council will consider the recommendations next month.

The WVXU program Cincinnati Edition explored this topic in a segment on August 19. Below is a transcript of that discussion, edited slightly for clarity.

Participants: Cincinnati Edition Host Michael Monks; Panel chair Ann Marie Tracey; panelist Guy Guckenberger; Council Member Greg Landsman; Interim Council Member Steve Goodin

Michael Monks 

Ann Marie I'll start with you. Before we dive into the specific recommendations that have emerged, talk about the process a bit. This was quite a daunting task, I imagine.

Ann Marie Tracey 

It was a daunting task. However, we had a great panel that was diverse and I think that diversity really added dimension and value to our work. Our first task was to gather information because we each came from different as I said, we each came from different perspectives, and we needed to be on the same page as much as possible with respect to being educated about the development process and what the potential issues were. We also examine best practices throughout the country, we consider the various proposed ordinances and I know councilmember Landsman and Councilmember Goodin had proposals that we reviewed, and then we started with winnowing it out and making trying to gather the recommendations together and into the various categories. One of our hardest things in this goes to the comment made about are not doing enough, is that we really had to focus our task we only had six months, and that was, that was hard.

Michael Monks 

Guy, your reaction as well to the work that the panel did?

Guy Guckenberger 

I think the panel did an extensive amount of work and I congratulate Ann Marie Tracey's leadership. I was in the minority on some issues I thought the panel should have been much stronger on prohibiting campaign contributions from developers.

Michael Monks 

We're going to dive into some of those specifics here momentarily and we'll get your reaction for further explanation on that, Guy, coming up. Councilman Goodin I know that you had some proposals as well, where do you stand currently based on what you've reviewed from the panel's recommendation? Do you go far enough, not go far enough?

Steve Goodin 

First I want to commend the folks on the panel, I think they did an outstanding job. I mean, whenever we have folks who volunteer and take time, without compensation from, from their busy schedules to do this sort of thoughtful work I mean it's a good day for the city so I thank you all for that, particularly to our chair. I do think that they provide an excellent framework. I do think we need to keep going. I mean I do think that some of the concerns that we've seen kind of go outside of the economic development process and into just general campaign finance reform in reporting requirements, and just general transparency, but I absolutely agree with what's here. I had testified before the committee and have been separately working on a ban of developer contributions, and absolutely thrilled to see that that is a centerpiece here. And I also liked some of the enhanced reporting requirements regarding so called Leadership PACS, and I think, I hope that my colleagues and I will be able to enact a lot of these proposals into law yet this session.

Michael Monks 

Councilman Landsman your thoughts after reviewing the panel recommendations?

Greg Landsman 

Yeah I mean I think they did a great job and you know they put a ton of time into this so we are grateful for their leadership and their work. Yeah, I mean we, we have a big public trust issue and it does go beyond just the issue of economic development, though obviously that's front and center and so, you know, we, we will likely pass most if not all of these recommendations. Also want to say thanks to the leadership of Councilman Mann who pulled this group together and I believe will be bringing forward legislation that will that will implement much if not all of this. I do believe that as the city manager has said, you know, the biggest thing is really appreciating the roles that are spelled out in the charter. But the mayor and council are policies that need to stay at that level, and that the manager is in charge of operations with all of the directors and city employees, and that people need to ensure that that those lines don't get blurred, and that the policymakers, the mayor and council members do not get in the middle of operations that we set policy and then they execute and that's, that's really the heart of this and so other reforms that we're talking about really help to reinforce and ensure that those lines are not crossed

Michael Monks 

We were talking about recommendations from the economic development reform panel here at the City of Cincinnati. And the reformed panel was pieced together following the indictments of three members of city council we should note that former council member Tamaya Dennard pleaded guilty and is currently in prison, but that council members PG Sittenfeld and Jeff Pastor who were indicted on federal charges are maintaining their innocence and plan to fight these charges. I'll go back to you Ann Marie Tracey as the chair of this economic development reform panel all those indictments were surrounding development deals and allegations of bribery and I'll note that the panel's number one recommendation here is an enactment excuse me an enactment of an ordinance prohibiting elected officials from soliciting or accepting, and developers from making contributions, while a matter involving the developer is before, city council. This, this may seem like an obvious response after what we've learned, either through the conviction of Tamaya Dennard or the allegations of course against the other two council members. What did you find while you were piecing this together related to that?

Ann Marie Tracey 

Our charge from the ordinance included to specifically to examine whether there should be a 24 month ban on campaign contributions from developers. So that was our, that was sort of our starting point, and we looked at different cities what they were doing. We considered, we tried to consider all aspects of the problem, and then it also included. How might something that we recommend affect small developers or be unreasonably long a time period if we wanted to pick a time period like 24 months. So, so we settled on the most crucial what we felt was the most crucial time period where the risk was the highest, and that's the point between the developers submitting something for approval with the clerk of counsel to the final disposition of that request. So we started with that question, that's, that's where we ended up, and we also then want to know what kind of projects are we talking about if somebody is remodeling their basement. Are they prohibited from giving a contribution, and we decided that small developers small projects where the city was not involved with tax incentives or selling or purchasing property, did not need to be addressed by this kind of ban.

Michael Monks 

Guy Guckenberger also served as a member of this reform panel and Guy earlier when we were speaking you had noted that you thought one of these reforms could have gone further in the recommendation process. So, would you like to elaborate on that?

Guy Guckenberger 

Sure, the panel recommended that campaign contributions be restricted only while a matter is pending before City Council, where the developer can be working with the city for years before the matter is actually formally submitted to city council. So I think that anytime a developer is doing business with the city, whether it's pending before city council or not they should be prohibited from making campaign contributions to council members and council candidates and council members should be prohibited from receiving or soliciting.

Michael Monks 

Councilman Landsman and Councilmember Steve Goodin, you're both, I believe, running for election coming up here in November. We're not here to talk about the campaigns necessarily as far as issues go, but this will be lingering over the campaign. I'm wondering as a politician, in addition to being an elected official Councilman Landsman, is that a challenge in being more heavily scrutinizing of those who are writing checks in support of you?

Greg Landsman 

Not at all. I think it's incredibly important. And, you know, one of the pieces of legislation that I propose and we'll ask council to reconsider, because it wasn't supported originally, is immediate disclosure of all campaign contributions within 48 hours, we added a day just to give people a little bit more time, the city has a website where all donations can be disclosed, because we vote every week, and developers are not the only ones who have an interest in what happens at city hall we have a big budget and, you know, whether it's, you know, contractors or nonprofits who get money from the city or somebody who's seeking a variance, there's just a lot of folks who may want to have some influence and, you know, I think it's important for every donation, you know $200 or more to be disclosed, you know, within, you know, a few days and so I do think that level of scrutiny is incredibly important certainly now as we're working to restore public trust.

Michael Monks 

Councilman Goodin, your thoughts on this?

Steve Goodin 

Well, you know, I think it's an incredibly important issue going forward. It does require at least for me I did not raise money during the budget process, for instance, and I didn't want there to be any hint of anybody, develop or otherwise, giving me funds or getting a solicitation for me while we were deciding our budget. Frankly, our Human Services budget where we gave out, you know, millions of dollars to different organizations. And I think that's, I think that's going to be sort of the standard going forward for us. But if anything, we cannot stress enough the importance of rebuilding this tries to what it has done to the city, overall, it creates a crisis of confidence in the business community in communities outside of the downtown area, as well. Just the sense that our government isn't working, that it only works if you know someone, the politicians are all behind the scenes, talking to administrative staff and influencing outcomes that are supposed to be purely neutral. It does make us look like a failing country. I just I read an article the other day about Afghanistan. And that one of the reasons that the the government that fell in Afghanistan lacked legitimacy was because of widespread corruption that had not been addressed. And I don't think we're certainly to that stage here, by any means, but it does put us at a competitive disadvantage with other cities. When business looks at our government as something that just is not an honest place, and they've been run, sort of in that fashion.

Michael Monks 

I want to go back to that first recommendation, the first of nine total formal recommendations from the panel: enactment of an ordinance prohibiting elected officials from soliciting or accepting, and developers from making contributions, while a matter involving the developer is before city council. Ann Marie and Guy, you we're both judges here on the bench so you have your legal background I'm wondering Ann Marie if this was explored at all from a First Amendment standpoint and if that could be a complication as these are implemented.

Ann Marie Tracey 

Actually we did. We were many of us were lawyers on the panel but I wouldn't say any of us is was an expert in terms of First Amendment law. So we recruited a professor from UC law, who was very helpful, and basically walked us through what he determined to be all the pertinent cases. And it's interesting, if there is a reason why City Council might consider a restriction like a ban on developers giving contributions. The courts have at least a appeals court federal appeals court said, because there was a reason we are going to allow it. So we might have been able, let me say, to say, no contributions, but you're getting in kind of murky areas when you do that, and so far the Supreme Court has not ruled in favor of banning contributions, that the issue is not precisely come before the Supreme Court.

Michael Monks 

Guy, was that at your understanding of the interpretation as well?

Guy Guckenberger 

Yes, but I think we can go a lot further than we did. Philadelphia, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles all have developer contribution bans that are far more restrictive than what has been proposed by the panel. Well, one of the good things the penalty is to say to city council, once a forensic audit is done, please review restrictions on campaign contributions. The forensic audit is the study for the last two years of whether there's any connection between campaign contributions and developer agreements. So if that turns out to be a problem. And I hope that city council would review any additional restrictions on campaign contributions that might need to be made.

Michael Monks 

We listened to a report from our reporter Becca Costello at the beginning of this segment, and it featured someone named Chanda Monroe, who says it's not easy for new developers to get started in that line of work because she says it's more about who you know, than what you know. And I'm wondering if our council members could help us understand their perspective on that. I'll start with you, Councilman Landsman: do you think that these reform recommendations will assist smaller developers in finding a footing that they feel they're not getting currently?

Greg Landsman 

I'm not sure, it's a good question. I think there's probably other work that needs to be done to ensure that anyone that wants to, you know, invest in the city of Cincinnati knows exactly how to get connected to the right folks within the administration, and, you know, as elected officials, we can certainly point, folks, to not specific people, but to the manager and the manager's office. I think that's one of the big changes that's been made, which is that no longer are members of council and mayor, reaching out to specific staff, but rather, you know, asking all of their questions through the manager's office, if there's a connection that needs to be made. That's done through the manager's office it just creates a level of transparency that I think is incredibly important. But yeah, we should be working on ways in which folks who want to invest in the city of Cincinnati think okay this is the right place and I know how to get a hold of the right people, but that's, you know, for council or the mayor that should simply be handing off the individual to the right person.

Michael Monks 

Councilman Goodin, your thoughts?

Steve Goodin 

Absolutely, I agree with, with a lot of what Councilmember Landsman said I think that part of the problem that the developer in your report identified goes outside of corruption and into just generally how the city does business and all the ways it could improve. You know I think are a lot of cities when we look at what Portland and Seattle does I mean, you know, their roadmap for what incentives you're allowed to get per different project is really reduced to one or two sheets of paper and a very simple roadmap that's provided and there are less things that are negotiated. Also note that I think we ought to put like affordable housing on a whole separate development track because so many smaller developers, break into the development business through the affordable housing model. And I think that's something that really has nothing to do with these recommendations or campaign finance or anything like that. But I do think we can open this up to smaller developers more if we kind of shepherded those projects through an entirely separate track.

Michael Monks 

I'm going to briefly summarize the nine recommendations for our listeners we've already talked about the enactment of an ordinance — again these are recommendations only — an enactment of an ordinance prohibiting elected officials from soliciting and accepting and developers from making contributions while in matters involving that developers before city council; there would be new rules for prohibiting elected officials from interacting with developers related to contracts; there would be a code of conduct and training about expected behaviors; there would be enhancement and ongoing education for city employees about their duties and how they interact with people under the city's code of conduct; recommendation five is enhancement of the city's confidential whistleblower hotline, I want to get back to that one momentarily; we would also review the ongoing forensic audit, which is exploring possible links between campaign contributions and development contracts; recommendation number seven is to explore measures to simplify the development process and make it more accessible; number eight, expand requirements to report misconduct to appropriate officials; and the ninth recommendation is that council should appropriate funding sufficient to prioritize and implement the above recommendation. Ann Marie, this whistleblower hotline, recommendation number five recommends enhancing that. Did you all while you were working as a panel, discover issues with the hotline?

Ann Marie Tracey 

Yes, we did, we discovered that people didn't know about it. And it was rarely used. I think last year, in 2020 I believe they said there were 12 calls to the hotline, it's the fraud, waste and abuse hotline, and most of those phone calls had to do with HR related matters. We think there should be an enhancement, and a name change for the hotline so that it invites people to call, based on whatever the new name is we didn't get in the weeds on that, and also training about the hotline should be integrated into all the training when people are going on board with the city council members, and even developers, so that there's one hotline.

Michael Monks 

I want to ask you Guy Guckenberger, also a member of the reform panel, of the nine recommendations is there a single one that you think is the most important?

Guy Guckenberger 

I think it's the establishment of a code of conduct for both council members and city administration employees. But one thing that we've learned from Paul Nick of the Ohio Ethics Commission is that it's important for people to understand what their responsibilities are and what the rules are. And when they understand those rules, and get training on them, and agree to them, they have a better framework within which to do their jobs.

Michael Monks 

Ann Marie I'll ask you the same question, any one that you hope makes it through any type of revisions?

Ann Marie Tracey 

Well I hope more than more than one makes it through. I think the package that Guy just described that you want to set expectations, inform people of what's expected, not only of their own jobs but other people's expectations, so that if there is a breach, if a developer would solicit city council person, or attempt to give a bribe during a period that's prohibited, the council member would know that hey this is not acceptable and then there's a reporting requirement for developers, city council members and employees. So I think the whole package together is an approach we would like to see the city take

Michael Monks 

Councilman Goodin, how do you see this process playing out? I understand council will take up these recommendations next month based on Becca Costello's reporting. Do you expect that these nine recommendations will be adopted or will there be revisions?

Steve Goodin 

I would expect that they'll certainly be adopted, but I don't know if they'll be adopted in precisely this form. I mean for instance you know I have been working on my own ordinance regarding the ban of contributions from those with active business before the city for several months. In fact I was working on it even before this commission was, was formed. So I think there, there may be a couple different versions for council to consider and I imagine you know in the legislative process that some changes you know will be made. I think one of the things that I want to make sure we capture in whatever final version we adopt if any of them is this idea that we, we needn't only look at quid pro quo corruption allegations, I've said this from the beginning, we don't need to only look at what is illegal, but what merits should be illegal. And there's a lot of things where what I would call soft corruption that doesn't rise to the level of criminal conduct or criminal charges, but where favors are being done, and campaign contributions are clearly in the mix. And those are the sorts of things you want to go after too and I'm with Judge Guckenberger where I think a categorical ban is really probably the only way that we can ensure that, as well as was some enhanced campaign financial reporting.

Michael Monks 

We'll take some calls now I've got Matt on the line. Hi Matt, what's your question or comment?

Matt [Caller]

Hi. My question is, what is the process for finding out where Cincinnati politicians get their funding? Is that disclosed on their campaign website, is it disclosed in some sort of public documentation? And how do I get that information, and possibly should it be easy to obtain, in order for better transparency?

Michael Monks 

Matt, thank you so much for the call. Councilman Landsman I know when you're running for office that you have certain deadlines in which you have to report money and where it's spent and who it came from, so if Matt and others want to find that what's the most general website destination for that?

Greg Landsman 

The Hamilton County Board of Elections will get you everyone's campaign contribution filings. The state now have a digital online form I think everyone had to use that this go round so that should be helpful. I put mine on my website every time I get a donation. It's up there so you can see every single person that's ever donated to me within 24 hours. It's just GregLandsman.com/donations. Though, the city's now got its own website. It had it previously, it's back up and running, and the legislation that I'm going to ask council to reconsider supporting is having everyone, that is all the members of council and the mayor, submit within, you know 72 hours contributions that come in so that there is a publicly facing database of all of the contributions, and it's in real time.