Commentary: It's Not Easy Being P.G. Sittenfeld Right Now

Mar 4, 2020

I'm not sure I'd want to be Cincinnati Council Member P.G. Sittenfeld right now.

Not that there is anything wrong with being P.G. Sittenfeld; he's a fine fellow; as amiable as all get-out; and he may well be the next mayor of the city of Cincinnati.

But this is not a good time to be P.G.

All because of Tamaya Dennard, his former council aide and, until Monday afternoon, his colleague on City Council.

Well, you already know the Tamaya Dennard story, unless you have been vacationing on one of the moons of Jupiter lately.

Here's the Cliffs Notes version for those who haven't been paying attention:

Arrested Feb. 25 outside a Downtown Starbucks by federal agents. Charged with acts and attempted acts of bribery, wire fraud and extortion. Allegedly offered to exchange her council votes for money. Denies the charges. But resigned Monday with half the world breathing down her neck.

And because of council's quaint custom of allowing council members to designate one or more of their colleagues to name their replacement should they not finish their terms, the hot potato landed in the lap of Sittenfeld, whose name was the only one on Dennard's designee form.

These things can be tricky, as the Republicans - a decided minority on council - wrestled with replacing Council Member Amy Murray, who is leaving soon to take a Trump administration job.

Murray – along with the Republican Party – wanted Betsy Sundermann, a West Sider who is a Probate Court magistrate, to fill the seat.

But it seemed at first that her designees – Independent Christopher Smitherman and Republican Jeffrey Pastor – wanted lawyer Steve Goodin, who has been something of a GOP Mr. Fix It. One of his recent projects, GOP sources say, was to straighten out the mess of Pastor's campaign finance reports so that he wouldn't get in hot water with the board of elections and the Ohio Elections Commission.

Given the weakness of the GOP in city politics, where diversity matters, putting a white Republican guy in a suit on City Council and expecting him to be able to keep the seat in the 2021 election was, in a word, ridiculous.

In the end, Pastor and Smitherman went with Murray's choice and replaced a woman with a woman, giving the GOP a fighting chance to keep the seat by appointing Sundermann.

Murray, since she was the one leaving council, could put together a group of Republican Party leaders and people from the Charter Committee (who also endorsed Murray in council races) to look for her replacement.

Sundermann was Murray's choice.

Sittenfeld, in replacing Dennard, doesn't have the luxury of forming a committee. Since he is a sitting council member and the person charged with naming a replacement, he couldn't put together a committee without being subject to open meeting laws.

That wasn't an issue for Murray.

Sittenfeld told WVXU he has been conferring with the city solicitor on developing a process for finding a successor and hopes to have a new council member in place by the end of the month.

He shared with WVXU his five-point criteria for making the selection.

He wants a "bridge builder" who can "forge common ground across race, gender and geography."

He wants someone with experience in city affairs; and a "leader who helps reflect the diversity of our city."

The new council member should also be someone who "shares core Democratic values" and sees the appointment as an "opportunity to share the future of the city for many years to come" – including being able to win election on his or her own.

Not too much to ask, eh?

Sittenfeld isn't engaging in any speculation about who he might have in mind.

But as soon as word of Dennard's resignation broke Monday, the social media in Cincinnati, which revs into high gear whenever there is potential conflict at City Hall, was full of people giving their free advice on who should be appointed.

Dozens of comments were made saying that Michelle Dillingham, the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers organizer, who finished just out of the running for a council seat in 2017, should be appointed.

You can make a good case for Dillingham, a long-time activist from Kennedy Heights who would make a diligent council member.

The only problem is that she is not African American, and Sittenfeld will be under a lot of pressure to appoint an African American woman to replace an African American woman on council.

There are plenty of choices out there – among those African American women being talked about are Jan-Michele Lemon Kearney, a lawyer and publisher of the Cincinnati Herald; Carolyn Jones, president of the Cincinnati Board of Education; and Victoria Parks, who was appointed to fill out the county commission term of the late Todd Portune. Parks could be available. The winner of the three-way Democrat primary for Portune's seat could be appointed to replace Parks.

Whoever Sittenfeld ends up choosing, there are people in his political party who are not going to be happy; and it remains to be seen how that might complicate his supposed plans to run for mayor next year.

One of the most thankless jobs in politics is now squarely in P.G. Sittenfeld's lap.

Credit Jim Nolan / WVXU

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