4 Cincinnati council members close out one of the most memorable terms in city history
One of the most memorable terms of Cincinnati City Council comes to a close next week. Six council members are leaving office: two appointed members who lost in the November election (Republicans Betsy Sundermann and Steve Goodin), and four who couldn't run again because of term limits.
Independent Christopher Smitherman and Democrats David Mann, Chris Seelbach and Wendell Young served together on council for the last eight years, although each held office for at least a decade. The last four years in particular have been marked by public bickering, lawsuits, corruption and the global pandemic.
Smitherman says he's most proud of decriminalizing marijuana and the property tax working group.
"As property values have skyrocketed, we've lowered the millage to keep our dollar amount at $29 million [even though] our charter allows us to go to 6.1 mills," he says, adding he hopes the new council won't increase property tax rates again.
"I think another piece is protecting our water system by making sure that it's a part of our charter that no council, no mayor, can sell our water," Smitherman says.
WVXU Senior Political Analyst Howard Wilkinson says Smitherman has been a true free agent on council.
"He'll work with Republicans when that suits his agenda," Wilkinson says. "He worked with [Democratic Mayor John] Cranley very well."
Democrat David Mann spent nearly three decades at City Hall between 1974 and now. Wilkinson says Mann is leaving office with the respect of many people.
"His legacy is going to be a long one," Wilkinson says. "He chose, in this last term, to be Finance Committee Chairman rather than vice mayor because he knew that the finance committee chair was a more significant position — he could do more that way."
As chair of the Budget and Finance Committee, Mann oversaw the creation of a spending plan for tens of millions of dollars in federal stimulus.
Mann says one of the most difficult challenges has been restoring trust after three council members were arrested on bribery charges.
"I advocated the creation of a task force — it came back with some great recommendations, we've implemented them legislatively — and we're trying to establish serious barriers between members of council and development," Mann says. "And there's a lot of work for the new mayor, the new council. It's going to take some time, I think, before people feel confidence that City Hall is a place that's clean."
Mann's fellow Democrat Chris Seelbach is best known for his efforts on LGBTQ equality, but says he ran for office because of population decline. He says Cincinnati needs the same amenities that draw people to larger cities, especially in arts and entertainment and multimodal transportation.
"When I say that, people automatically think I mean the streetcar, and that's not what I'm meaning," Seelbach says. "We have to have transportation infrastructure that allows a person not to have to have a car. And so that's everything from dedicated bike lanes, to bike trails, to a better and more robust bus system, to not closing off Uptown."
Of course, the streetcar did dominate headlines as one of the most public disputes on council, especially between Seelbach and outgoing Mayor John Cranley.
"[Seelbach] and John Cranley were never going to get along," Wilkinson says. "That was oil and water. It just wasn't going to work. They didn't talk to each other, they didn't deal with each other. And it made for a very tense situation."
Democrat Wendell Young is a streetcar supporter and names it as one of his proudest accomplishments.
"I'm more focused on the things I couldn't get done," Young says. "I wasn't able to cure the food deserts in some of our neighborhoods where people don't have access to the fresh fruits and vegetables and things that they need to have a healthy diet."
Wilkinson says Young was well attuned to public safety issues in the city thanks to his background in both the military and the Cincinnati Police Department.
"I don't think we'll ever see him run for office again, but he's still the kind of person who is well respected in the Black community," Wilkinson says. "And if he wants to be, he can be a real voice in the African American community for years to come."
Young and Seelbach were part of this session's first major controversy: the so-called Gang of Five. The two were part of a group text with three other council members that violated the state's open meetings law.
Young says, in his opinion, the real issue was overlooked: that Mayor John Cranley tried to fire the city manager without council input.
"The council members who got together to try to keep him in his lane ended up violating the Sunshine Law," he says. "And it was something that we didn't know we were doing, and something that when we found out we were doing we obviously would not ever have done again. But it never would have happened if the mayor had simply obeyed the charter."
Young says Cranley shouldn't have been involved in negotiating development deals, either. Seelbach agrees and says he's worried about the future of the city's council-manager form of government.
Cranley says he's always acted within charter boundaries, and the current city manager and city solicitor agree.
Mann and Smitherman both served as vice mayor under Cranley. Mann says there's still some confusion about mayoral power, and Smitherman says there are some loose ends to tie up.
"I think the pocket veto is one of those places," says Smitherman. "I don't think a mayor should be able to stop a member of council from introducing legislation by keeping it off the calendar in perpetuity."
All four term-limited council members considered a run for mayor last year, but only Mann made it to the ballot. He lost to Hamilton County Clerk of Courts Aftab Pureval, who takes office Jan. 4 along with the new council.
Wilkinson says City Hall will look much different under the leadership of Pureval and the new council.
"You're not going to have these personal confrontations that we used to have," Wilkinson says. "It's going to be more civil. And civility is a good thing."
What's next for the four long-time council members?
Smitherman is the only one pursuing public office again, with a bid to unseat Hamilton County Commissioner Stephanie Summerow Dumas next year.
He says he's ready to pass the City Council baton.
"I started off with my wife, and I'm ending without her," he says. "That is that is at center in my mind."
Smitherman's wife, Paula, died in 2019 after a two-year battle with breast cancer.
Mann will continue practicing law with his son and says he's looking forward to spending more time with his wife, who has had serious health problems this year.
"I have never been happy to have too much free time, so I hope that in addition to taking care of clients, there will be some boards that I might serve on," Mann says. "My sister says I should write a book about my experiences."
Young has no plans to run for public office again, adding, "I never say never, but if you ask me right now what my plan is, my plan is to go fishing."
Young says his long career in public service has been rewarding: "I feel like I've done a lot of good for a lot of people."
Seelbach says the last 10 years have taken a toll on his mental and physical health.
"I can't ever see myself running for office again," he says. "I don't know what's next, but I'm very mission-driven, so I want to do something where I'm changing the world. And I see that either in nonprofit or foundation leadership. But I'm going to enjoy the fact that I don't have something lined up yet and also take some time to unplug."
Also officially leaving office are two council members who have been on city payroll for a year without actually serving: Jeff Pastor and P.G. Sittenfeld. Each accepted a suspension after being indicted on corruption charges.