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For the first time, Cincinnati council and mayor have a Code of Conduct they must abide by

City Hall in Cincinnati, Ohio, Wednesday, May 12, 2021.
Jason Whitman
City Hall in Cincinnati, Ohio, Wednesday, May 12, 2021.

Cincinnati Council voted unanimously Wednesday to approve the first ever code of conduct for council members and their staff.

The new requirement is part of a series of reforms that stemmed from three council member arrests on federal corruption charges in 2020. A council-established Economic Development Reform Panel recommended a code of conduct for council and the mayor, along with several other suggestions.

Council Member Meeka Owens prepared the code of conduct.

"The language was purposely made to be simple to serve as a foundation for how we can lead not only for ourselves, but also our staffers," Owens said. "And also an opportunity to promote aspirational qualities of increasing more good government transparency, and allowing us to be better public servants."

The code has 11 provisions, including a commitment to never use city resources or personnel for political activity; to cultivate a culture of reporting unethical conflict; and to recognize the "charter role of the Mayor, Council and City Manager, particularly in contracting, development projects, and incentives." (See the full list below.)

Council Member Reggie Harris says the code is meant to be a "living, breathing" document.

"As we grow, as cities change, laws change and conditions change, the code of conduct is not something that is stagnant," Harris said. "It is my hope — and I'm sort of saying this publicly for us to have a level of accountability — that we think about this code of conduct as something that sits with us, and that we come back and … are able to say this has changed in the world and we have to flex."

All council members and their staff have to sign a copy of the code of conduct and file it with the clerk. Future council members and staff will have to sign the document within 45 days of taking office or starting the job. Council could censure a member for violating the code of conduct with a majority vote; the censure would be filed with the clerk of council.

The previous council passed the code of conduct requirement 8-1 in October, with suggested provisions for the new council to include. Chris Seelbach opposed that measure, saying he objected to language implying council members must agree with a legal opinion saying the mayor has a right to negotiate economic development deals.

That language is absent from the code of conduct passed this week. Council Member Liz Keating says it lacks clear definitions of the proper role of council, the city manager and the mayor.

"It's [important] we put it in black and white, in writing, so the public understands what we interpret the charter to say, what those lanes are [and] so that we're all on the same page," Keating said.

Mayor Aftab Pureval is also required to create and sign a code of conduct, which he signed and released to reporters after the council vote.

It's identical to the council version with one exception:

  • Council version: Support the integrity of the city's development process and promote public trust by directing inquiries from developers related to financial assistance or land use approvals to the City Manager's Office so that they can be handled uniformly through transparent city administrative processes.
  • Mayor version: Recognize the limitations on the Mayor's ability to negotiate economic development deals without the involvement and approval of the city manager.

Pureval says negotiating the "specifics" of deals should be left to the city manager, but, "it is important for me to understand the constellation of deals going on in our city and to strategize with the city manager about what our priorities are, and how those priorities are reflected in the various deals that are going forward or not going forward."
His approach is different from former Mayor John Cranley, who defended his right to be involved in development deals. Cranley cited, in part, the previously mentioned legal opinion from the city solicitor.

Pureval says his own interpretation of the charter is consistent with that legal opinion, as well.

Council Member Keating says it would have been better to have the mayor's version of the code of conduct in time to propose possible amendments to the council version.

"I may come forward with some more suggested amendments," Keating said. "And I also want to say we did get some comments from the public on some suggestions [and] we're considering those."

All mayoral staff are required to sign the code as well. Violations are enforceable by censure via a majority council vote.

Code of Conduct:

  1. Recognize the charter role of the Mayor, Council, and City Manager, particularly in contracting, development projects, and incentives;
  2. Recognize the obligation of elected officials and staff to not attempt to privately interfere with quasi-judicial proceedings of boards and commissions or the zoning hearing examiner;
  3. Cultivate a culture of reporting of conflicts of interest and unethical conduct and a commitment to avoid retaliating against those who report suspected conflicts or unethical conduct;
  4. Commit to understanding and following the applicable ethics and conflict of interest laws (See Ohio Revised Code Chapter 102 and Section 2921.42);
  5. Commit to attend training at least annually on Ohio ethics laws and other state and local laws pertinent to the role of the Council;
  6. Commit to never use city resources or personnel for political activity;
  7. Support the integrity of the City's development process and promote public trust by directing inquiries from developers related to financial assistance or land use approvals to the City Manager's Office so that they can be handled uniformly through transparent City administrative processes;
  8. Set City funding and appropriation priorities in an open, transparent, and public manner;
  9. Not use City resources or personnel to disclose confidential information obtained through the performance of City work for private gain or publicity or as prohibited by Ohio Revised Code section 102.03(B);
  10. Adhere to all applicable laws and regulations that provide equal opportunity for all persons regardless of race, color, religion, gender, gender identity, national origin, age, sexual orientation, or disability;
  11. Report, without undue delay, to the City Manager, City Solicitor, Ohio Ethics Commission, or other appropriate authority, conduct in the performance of official duties that is reasonably believed to violate the law or reasonably believed to violate this code of conduct.

New Ethics & Good Government Division

Another anti-corruption reform is taking shape: the new Ethics and Good Government Division. The City Solicitor's Office chose Chris Liu, chief hearing examiner, to be the city's first Ethics and Good Government counselor. Two staff members have also been hired for the division.

Council created the new office last year. A memo dated Jan, 31 outlines the work accomplished so far, including:

  • Facilitated the speedy online publication by the Cincinnati Elections Commission of November 2021 election campaign finance reports. With the additional staffing and support provided by Ethics and Good Government Division, the online publication of campaign reporting was completed in only a few business days, compared to several weeks in the past.
  • Have solicited conflict of interest surveys from the city's elected officials. The purpose of these newly created surveys was to proactively address potential conflicts of interest and incompatible employment.
  • Arranged for training from the Ohio Ethics Commission for council members and staff.

The division is working to implement a new hotline for reporting ethics, fraud, waste and abuse, and an expanded online resource for viewing campaign contributions.

Local Government Reporter with a particular focus on Cincinnati; experienced journalist in public radio and television throughout the Midwest. Enthusiastic about: civic engagement, public libraries, and urban planning.