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Council could meet behind closed doors for the first time since voters approved the use of some executive sessions

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

Cincinnati Council could soon meet behind closed doors for the first time since voters approved the use of some private meetings three years ago.

The 2018 charter amendment gives council permission to use a process in state law called executive session, which allows a private meeting for certain topics like pending or imminent litigation.

That's the reason some council members are in favor of a closed-door meeting: to talk about a lawsuit alleging the city's residential tax abatement system discriminates against majority-Black neighborhoods.

The lawsuit came up during public comment at a recent council meeting, prompting questions from council members and an update from the law department at last week's Economic Growth and Zoning Committee.

Wendell Young asked for an executive session after a city attorney said some of his questions get into legal strategy and are best answered in private.

"While I will agree that for some people executive session may look like a terrible thing, the reality is, I believe that as clients, with our law department being our lawyers, I think that we have a need and many times a right to know what the city's position is on things, especially when we cannot arguably answer questions that people may pose to us about pending litigation," Young said.

Committee chair Vice Mayor Christopher Smitherman says he's not in favor of an executive session for this purpose.

"They're very, very, very, very rare that they have been used here," Smitherman said. "And as we have a broad discussion about transparency and the importance of that, it's just important how you use the tool."

Smitherman suggested council members ask the law department for one-on-one meetings to ask questions that can't be answered in public. Interim Council Member Liz Keating says it would be better to address their questions as a group.

"It's more efficient for our administration in terms of their time," Keating said. "Having nine individual meetings, having to schedule that, and then having different questions and dispersing different information nine different times, is not efficient; is not good government."

Interim Council Member Steve Goodin agreed, saying executive sessions are fairly common in other local jurisdictions, like the Hamilton County Board of Commissioners and Cincinnati Public Schools Board.

Federal judge Timothy Black recently decided the tax abatement lawsuit can go to trial, partially dismissing a motion from the city asking for the case to be thrown out.

Black did dismiss the litigants' claim that the city's residential tax abatement program is intentionally discriminatory; the question at trial will be whether the program is discriminatory regardless of intent.

"The city is probably correct about the 'myriad causes' of segregation and stagnant home prices in African-American neighborhoods," Black wrote in the recent ruling. "The court is not convinced, though, that plaintiffs must prove that the operation of the [residential tax abatement] is the exclusive driver of the harms they allege."

City attorneys say they're confident the abatement system does not violate the Fair Housing Act or any other law.