Corruption Reform Dominates Discussion In City Hall's Start To 2021

Jan 5, 2021

Three Cincinnati Council members have been indicted this year and accused of creating pay-to-play schemes with developers. Now, other members of council are deciding exactly how to prevent those kinds of crimes, and they're getting down to the specifics.

During Tuesday's Law and Public Safety Committee meeting, members considered whether City Council members should ever be meeting with developers in private, if the city needs a new ethics commission, and financial disclosure modifications.

"It's very important to re-establish trust between the people of Cincinnati and this governing body," Chair Christopher Smitherman said, who earlier that day asked the city to conduct a "forensic audit" on past council votes. "I want people to see the sausage being made about how thoughtful we were in the process."

At the meeting, committee members discussed two motions and an ordinance to directly address corruption.

The first was presented by Council Member David Mann and calls for a change in how members interact with developers. Mann said council members should only interact with developers in public meetings.

"I think, ideally, they all happen on the floor of council," he said. "Why should the public not know, what is of concern to me?"

Ultimately, the motion calls for council members to be involved only in reviewing, approving, rejecting or modifying proposed development. Negotiations on developments will be left to city staff.

A Proactive Approach

The Ohio Ethics Commission investigates corruption throughout the state, but committee members said that's mostly a reactive body that responds to complaints. They want to see a more proactive approach.

Council Member Greg Landsman says creating a Cincinnati Ethics Commission could work in tandem with the state-level commission.

The city's commission would be in charge of training council members and relevant city staff about ethics issues and report financial disclosure forms.

"I believe that this will make a difference and will provide voters with another level of reassurance that things are headed in a much better direction," he said.

The commission is part of a larger motion that calls for hiring a chief ethics and good government officer who'd be in charge of supporting the commission's work and taking point on local reforms.

It additionally calls for financial disclosure changes and a possible charter amendment to update local campaign finance rules and create a way to remove people from office with a supermajority council vote.

Among other actions considered by the committee, Council Member Betsy Sundermann presented an ordinance proposing changing the financial disclosure requirement for members and the mayor. It would require them to disclose any time they receive a gift, loan or services worth $75 or more.

"So I'm letting us buy lunch or something for each other, that should be OK. But we can't have one council member beholden to another council member," she said.

Ultimately, the Law and Public Safety Committee decided to hold off on making any changes until they get more input about the two motions and an ordinance they discussed. Members said they plan on passing a large, bipartisan anti-corruption package by no later than March.

"My thought process is to give the administration opportunities to digest and weigh in on those," Smitherman said.

March 5 is the latest date to pass an ordinance that puts a charter amendment on the May 4 ballot.