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Cincinnati city manager endorses idea for 'ethics and good government' officer

City Hall in Cincinnati, Ohio, Wednesday, May 12, 2021.
Jason Whitman
City Hall in Cincinnati, Ohio, Wednesday, May 12, 2021.

A director of ethics and good government could take on responsibility for implementing anti-corruption reform in Cincinnati. Creating that new position is a key part of City Manager Paula Boggs Muething's reform recommendations, outlined in a new report.

The new officer would be an attorney in the City Solicitor's Office. It would cost about $500,000 for the new officer, two support staff positions and operating costs.

The officer would be responsible for implementing anti-corruption reform approved by council — based on recommendations of the Economic Development Reform Panel, which was formed in response to three council member arrests on federal corruption charges last year.

"This position is envisioned to function as a central clearinghouse for reporting of campaign finance, ethical and code of conduct issues, and for referring complaints, investigating at times, and otherwise administering applicable requirements in this field," said Assistant City Manager Billy Weber.

A graphic from the City Manager's report outlines the proposed process for handling a complaint if city council approves the creation of an Ethics and Good Government Counselor.
Cincinnati City Manager
A graphic from the City Manager's report outlines the proposed process for handling a complaint if city council approves the creation of an Ethics and Good Government Counselor.

The City Solicitor's Office is drafting legislation to identify a funding source and appropriate the money.

Council Member Greg Landsman first proposed an ethics director nearly a year ago. A committee tabled it in August, with some council members saying they wanted to review all reform recommendations together.

Now that the city manager's report is complete, Budget and Finance Chair David Mann says he wants to move quickly.

"I understand the budgetary concerns, but some of this is so important, we got to find a way to get there," Mann said. "My hope would be that next week, when we've had time to reflect — and I don't know whether ordinances can be drafted in that time period — we can make some decisions, provide some direction, on what we want to see and when."

Interim Council Member Steve Goodin's proposed ban on some campaign donations is part of the recommendations. The EDRP recommended a ban on developers donating to council members or the mayor as long as they have active business at City Council.

"I think this will continue to evolve over time," Goodin said. "And I hope we have robust discussions, particularly about the length of time, the contribution ban will encompass, whether or not other sorts of folks with city business should be included there. I think those are all legitimate questions we should have in this committee and as a council."

Council could opt to approve some reform ordinances without supporting the creation of a new director of ethics and good government. Betsy Sundermann expressed opposition to the idea during discussion in August.

"This just seems bureaucratic," Sundermann said then. "I ask for ethics opinions all the time from the Law Department. They have numerous attorneys who work on this. I don't understand … why we need to spend more money on this when I think they already do a good job."

Panel Recommendations & City Manager Response

Not comprehensive — see the full report below.

Codes of conduct

The reform panel recommended a new code of conduct for each of several categories:

  • City council members and staff
  • Mayor and mayoral staff
  • City staff
  • Appointees
  • Developers

The city manager can implement a new code of conduct for city staff without legislative approval at council; her report says that code of conduct is in progress and acknowledgement and training will be required for all current and future city employees.
The solicitor's office has drafted ordinances with a proposed code of conduct for the mayor and council members. See those drafts below (story continues after).

Campaign contribution regulations

The reform panel considered a wider ban on developer campaign donations, but ultimately recommended a ban only while a developer's business is before council; that time frame can be as little as a few days out of the months- or years-long negotiation process.

Implementing such a ban would require an "active developer list" which would be maintained by the ethics and good government counselor. The City Solicitor's Office is working on a B version of Goodin's proposal.

Although the panel recommended passing an ordinance prohibiting developers from making campaign contributions during this time frame, the city manager recommends only prohibiting the acceptance and solicitation of such donations.

"To address developer conduct directly, the administration recommends implementing the prohibition on developer contributions by including it in the developer code of conduct," the report says.

Campaign contribution transparency

The panel recommends an ordinance to expand disclosure requirements for council members, the mayor and candidates for those offices. The change would require reporting for other campaign accounts or committees a candidate has control over; those reports are already required under state law, but not by the city.

In addition, the panel recommends expanding the city's public campaign finance portal to include those reports.

The city manager's report does not explicitly endorse Greg Landsman's proposal to require online reporting of most campaign donations within three business days. The first version of Landsman's proposal failed in a committee in May; a slightly revised version was referred to city administration for a report in August.

"If council determines that three-day disclosure is appropriate but does not fund the ethics and good government counselor recommendations … then additional resources will be required to maintain and enforce the three-day reporting system," the city manager's report says. "If funded, the ethics and good government administrative staff could maintain and operate such a submission portal as part of their duties in supporting the Cincinnati Election Commission."

The report says a one-time investment of $75,000 would allow staff to upgrade the city's current campaign finance website to handle both the extra reports recommended by the reform panel, as well as the immediate disclosure requirement proposed by Landsman.

See the full report below:

Local Government Reporter with a particular focus on Cincinnati; experienced journalist in public radio and television throughout the Midwest. Enthusiastic about: civic engagement, public libraries, and urban planning.