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Commentary: This Is The Most Embarassing Episode In Cincinnati City Hall, Ever

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Sittenfeld courtesy of Wikimedia Commons; all others provided
From left, council members P.G. Sittenfeld, Greg Landsman, Wendell Young, Tamaya Dennard, Chris Seelbach.

I've been around Cincinnati politics for 37 years now, and I have never seen anything that remotely compares to this compost heap caused by the "Gang of Five" and their thousands of mindless texts.

Last week, after the tongue-lashing the five council members got from Hamilton County Common Pleas Court Judge Robert Ruehlman and some 25,000 text messages were released to the public, I sat with my WVXU colleagues going through each and every one, and I didn't know whether to laugh or cry.

I did feel like I needed a shower afterwards.

Five Democratic members of City Council were involved – P.G. Sittenfeld (who would like to be the next mayor), Greg Landsman, Tamaya Dennard, Chris Seelbach and Wendell Young.

In the cases where all five were on a message string, they constituted a majority of the nine-member council and, under the law, those were illegal meetings, because they were conducted in cyberspace, not council chambers.

The name-calling, the back-biting, the mean-spirited accusations that these five bantered about on their mobile devices was disgusting and juvenile.

Much of it was directed at Mayor John Cranley, who had wanted to get rid of City Manager Harry Black. That was enough for these five to do everything in their power to save Black's hide, and they plotted ways of doing that in the text messages.

And they saved some of their nastiness for Vice Mayor Christopher Smitherman, whose wife Pamela was dying of cancer at the time. Seelbach and Sittenfeld implied that Smitherman – an ally of Cranley who also plans to run for mayor – was using his wife's illness for political purposes.

Now, Smitherman and Sittenfeld are the two members of council who have made it clear they are going to try to replace Cranley when he is term-limited out in two years.

And if you don't think this whole fiasco is tied up in the upcoming mayoral race, think again, my friend.


These texts came to light because of a lawsuit filed by Mark Miller, the treasurer of the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST). Smitherman is a political ally of COAST. Miller was represented by lawyer Brian Shrive of the Finney Law Firm, whose senior partner, Christopher Finney, was one of the founders of COAST, and like Shrive, a friend and political ally of Smitherman.

Some might think this "Gang of Five" was being set up for a fall – especially a fall for Sittenfeld, who stands in the way of Smitherman and his desire to be mayor.

But, if it was a trap, these five walked right into it.

Landsman was the only one who showed any sense by suggesting that they might be violating the state's Sunshine Law by holding what amounted to unannounced meetings via mobile phones.

But it appears the rest of them just shrugged their shoulders and plowed forward.

It ended (for now; there are more texts to come) last Thursday when Ruehlman signed an agreement between the city and the plaintiff to settle for $101,000. The bulk of the money - $90,000 - goes to the Finney Law Firm.

With the five council members in the courtroom (the judge had insisted they be there), Ruehlman lit into them, saying that they had lost the trust of their fellow council members and of the citizens of Cincinnati and that they should resign.

"No voter in this city should ever vote for one of these council members again," Ruehlman said.

Well, that's great, your honor, but I think we can let the voters of Cincinnati sort that out without any help from the bench. But, then again, it's his courtroom and he can say what he likes.

The Gang of Five was left fumbling around for an explanation for their behavior. The question I have heard most often from citizens is a simple one: What were they thinking by leaving a record of all of this nonsense?

It reminded me of the surreptitious notes we used to pass back and forth in my sixth grade class at Cleveland Elementary School in Dayton. We made fun of the teachers, the principal, fellow students we didn't like and it got very nasty sometimes – just like the council members' texts.

Did I mention that we were only 12 years old when we were doing all of this?

Or that our notes were written in a code I had discovered that had been used by Confederate spies in the Civil War? The notes were often intercepted, but no teacher or principal could decipher them.

We were stupid, juvenile kids.

These were grown-up adults, who presumably should have known better.

They either didn't know or didn't care.

With the exception of Young, the eldest of the Gang of Five, they grew up with the rise of cyber communications and they know exactly how it works.

Go to a Cincinnati City Council meeting some time. Look up at the dais and count how many of the nine are sitting there during a council meeting, playing with their iPhones and tapping out messages, parties unknown.

You will find it happening a lot. Constantly, in fact.

Well, maybe not so much anymore.

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Credit Jim Nolan / WVXU

Read more "Politically Speaking" here.

Howard Wilkinson is in his 50th year of covering politics on the local, state and national levels.