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Council approves new ethics director and bans some campaign donations to curb corruption

Council chambers in Cincinnati City Hall
Jason Whitman
/
WVXU

Cincinnati Council voted 8-0 Wednesday to ban some campaign contributions in an effort to combat corruption, and to create a new position to oversee all reform efforts at City Hall.

Vice Mayor Christopher Smitherman says council has done a good job working across party lines to address corruption.

"This is a non partisan issue," Smitherman said. "We're talking about ethics, which are higher than the law, what are our standards, how we conduct ourselves when we're dealing with money, power and votes."

The Budget and Finance Committee discussed the measures at length Monday before sending them to full council.

Developer solicitation ban

Interim Council Member Steve Goodin proposed the developer solicitation ban earlier this year, around the time the Economic Development Reform Panel began meeting. The panel's recommendations include a developer ban, as well.

The ordinance bans elected officials from soliciting or accepting a donation from someone with active business at council, starting from the day the ordinance is filed with the council clerk. Development deals are often on the council docket for as little as one week, and rarely more than two or three weeks.

"But just as important, or maybe even more important, is having this active developer list so that we can see what's going on, we can see who's negotiating," Goodin said. "And I think that just knowing that that's out there and available for the public to see will change some behaviors by itself."

The ordinance creates two public lists:

  • City Business List: all financially interested persons from the time of application for city business to six months after the conclusion of legislative action on the city business.
  • Temporary Prohibition List: only those financially interested persons from whom solicitation or acceptance of campaign contributions is currently prohibited because relevant city business is before council.

Developers will still be able to donate to council members and the mayor while negotiating an incentive deal. As Interim Council Member Liz Keating points out, there's disagreement about whether the city charter allows the mayor to be involved in development negotiations.
"I don't think a mayor should be," Keating said. "But if it continues to move forward where a mayor is allowed, I think that there should be a line in here saying the mayor should be banned from contributions or soliciting during the entire negotiation period."

Keating also said she'd like to see limits on campaign contributions from other entities as well, like unions and nonprofits. Keating wanted to delay a vote until these issues could be resolved.

Committee Chair David Mann disagreed.

"It's a start, and I would like to see us make the start and then circle back around in two weeks or whenever it's appropriate if we think we're ready to improve it," Mann said.

Mann said there will be no Budget and Finance meeting next Monday, the day before the election. Keating says she feels the ordinance is being rushed because of the election.

"I understand people have a political will to get things passed quickly so they can say it to voters," Keating said. "But I think the other thing that's important to say to voters is show them that we are taking a thoughtful approach, listening to … eight different perspectives and making this better and making this more firm and stronger."

Eight of nine council members are part of the Budget and Finance committee; of those, only two (Wendell Young and Chris Seelbach) are not on the November ballot.

The final version of the ordinance is slightly amended from last week's discussion. The grace period for a campaign to return a prohibited donation has been extended from two weeks to 30 days; and "financially interested person" has been expanded to include dependent children instead of just a spouse.

Ethics and Good Government Counselor

Greg Landsman proposed the idea of an ethics director nearly a year ago, soon after Jeff Pastor and P.G. Sittenfeld were arrested on bribery charges (several months after Tamaya Dennard's arrest on similar charges).

Landsman says the new position will oversee other reform efforts, including the campaign donation ban and a confidential whistleblower hotline.

"Having a robust office, leadership, that will focus on the training and new policy and ensuring real transparency across the board, dealing with complaints, is a best practice that we've seen in other cities, and will be foundational, in terms of all of the other reforms," Landsman said.

The ethics and good government counselor will work within the City Solicitor's Office and report to the city manager.

Council Member Chris Seelbach opposed the idea in discussion last week, but later decided to support it.

"I do have some concerns that I voiced last week. I do think this could potentially be used as a political tool," Seelbach said. "And I think if it does, Council in the future will need to revisit that."

It will cost about $500,000 a year for the new officer, two support staff positions and operating costs.