Ethics Training, Charter Amendments For Council Suspensions Will Be On May Ballot

Feb 9, 2021

Updated: Wednesday, 5 p.m.

Cincinnati Council wants voters to change the city charter to address what happens if a council member is indicted on a felony. Council approved two charter amendments for the May ballot on Wednesday.

Currently, council members can only be suspended through the Attorney General's Office or if a citizen petitions the Hamilton County Probate Court.

Council Member Betsy Sundermann wants voters to give council the authority to suspend a member internally.

"Two council members who are currently suspended agreed to that suspension," Sundermann said in committee Tuesday. "Had it gone through the lengthy process, we would have been in a little bit of a jam for a while, not knowing if people were allowed to show up and vote."

Under the charter amendment, a felony indictment would trigger a motion for suspension that the full council would consider. Suspension would require at least seven votes on the nine-member council, with the council member in question unable to vote.

The original proposal required a simple majority of five votes to suspend a member, but Sundermann amended the language after hearing concerns from other members.

Vice Mayor Christopher Smitherman said he was uncomfortable with the idea of council weighing whether or not to remove a colleague.

"There are some natural biases," Smitherman said. "I wish I could say that there weren’t, but I believe there are times that things could become politically motivated."

Sundermann's proposed charter amendment would also require ethics training for all council members. The Ohio Ethics Commission would provide the training in a one-hour online webinar.

Cincinnati Chief Counsel Christine Zimmer says it covers all of Ohio ethics law: conflicts of interest, public contracts, nepotism, post-employment restrictions and representations of clients after leaving public service.

A separate charter amendment, proposed by Smitherman, would alter the probate court process by having a special prosecutor work on the case instead of the city solicitor.

Suspended Council Members P.G. Sittenfeld and Jeff Pastor still collect paychecks during suspension as they face federal corruption charges. The city solicitor could go to court to ask for them to be removed from office, but Smitherman says that's a conflict of interest.

"Even though the city solicitor's office operates separate from council and separate from the mayor, we're really asking for the city solicitor to go after one of their bosses," he said.

Smitherman's proposed amendment would have the solicitor appoint a special prosecutor to deal with cases like this.

Both amendments would prevent an indicted council member from changing their successor designee — that’s who on council gets to choose a replacement for a member who vacates their seat.

Member Chris Seelbach says indicted members should be presumed innocent.

"There’s no conclusion that you did anything wrong until its been proven or you admit to it," Seelbach said. "And so if a council member is still on council and has not been removed through the other means and they want to change their successor designee, which they have the right to do given that they were elected to city council, they should be able to do that."

Seelbach said he supports the other provisions of the two amenedments, but he voted against both because of his opposition to the successor designee section. The ordinances passed on a 8-1 vote. 

The charter amendments overlap but do not contradict each other, which means they could both go into effect if voters approve both measures. 

Read the full charter amendments below: 

Charter Amendment: Betsy Su... by WVXU News

Charter Amendment: Christop... by WVXU News

This story was originally published Tuesday and has been updated.