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David Pepper Thinks He Knows How To Fix Cincinnati City Hall

david pepper
Aaron Doster
David Pepper, who will step down as chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party at the end of the year, at the Hamilton County Board of Elections as people arrive to participate in early voting in Norwood on Oct. 6.

I don't know if David Pepper, who will leave his six-year stint as Ohio Democratic Party chairman at the end of the month, will run for Cincinnati mayor in 2021.

I do know that he is thinking about it, because he told me he is. But he is nowhere near committing to a race.

But I do know what he says he would do if he were mayor, given the sad state of affairs at Cincinnati City Hall, with three members – two Democrats and a Republican – charged with felony crimes this year. And I tend to take him seriously on this matter – he served on council from 2001 to 2005, when he ran for mayor and lost to fellow Democrat Mark Mallory.

His fix for the "culture of corruption" at City Hall is actually quite simple; it would require next to nothing in the way of new legislation or massive reform.

It would just require that council members live up to the requirements of the city charter, which was adopted in 1925 and has served the city well through generations.

"If I am mayor and I get any whiff that you, as a council member, are interfering with development projects, you will get called out for it publicly and you will be demoted from any council chairmanship that you have," Pepper told WVXU.

"Not to sound like the old grandpa, but for a council member to get involved in negotiations with developers before a development plan goes to the city planning commission for vetting? No, that's not right," Pepper said. "That's not the way business has been conducted in this city for nearly a century now." 

And, boy, are these three council members accused of interfering.

Democrat Tamaya Dennard, arrested and charged in February, has plead guilty to one count of honest services wire fraud in a bribery case where she was accused of taking money from a developer. Republican Jeff Pastor, arrested and charged in early November, is charged with lining his pockets with bribes from another developer – a charge he denies.

Then, in late November, came the case of Democrat P.G. Sittenfeld – at the time the leading contender to replace the term-limited John Cranley in the 2021 mayoral election. He was charged with bribery-related charges for illegally taking money for a leadership PAC he created for his campaign from the same developer who was involved in the Pastor case.

Sittenfeld has been proclaiming his innocence in video tweets. But, in all likelihood, his mayoral ambitions are over, even if he is ultimately found not guilty. He's voluntarily taken a suspension from council and Probate Court Judge Ralph "Ted" Winkler will name his temporary replacement.

Right now – with Sittenfeld's status unclear – there are four Democrats running for mayor of Cincinnati: Council member David Mann, former council member and state Senator Cecil Thomas, community activist Kelli Prather, and retired firefighter Raffel Prophett.

Pepper, who is leaving as state party chairman after a series of statewide elections where Ohio Democrats have been, for the most part, clobbered by the GOP, is contemplating a run for mayor.

"It's something to consider," Pepper said. "It's a job that I have run for before and I thought I had some good ideas back then. And now we have this unique situation, this serious problem that hangs over City Hall like a cloud."

Whether he runs for mayor or not, he hopes council can get back to its old form and restore the trust of citizens, which is clearly eroding.

"I think we all see the need for something to lift us up,'' Pepper said.

When he was on council, Pepper said, the city charter was "the North Star'' – a document that made it clear that the job of council members was to set policy and vote on development projects after they had been fully vetted by the city manager and the city administration.

"The one thing that the city charter does not do is create a path for council to become a bunch of mini mayors,'' Pepper said.

"Maybe, before all of this happened, people thought of those of us on council as a bunch of goody two-shoes,'' Pepper said. "Maybe we were. But it worked. We took the city charter seriously. That needs to happen again."

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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.