Updated: 2:28 p.m.
The judge in the case against five Cincinnati City Council members who broke Ohio law by secretly texting each other said they "should resign'' and return to taxpayers the $101,000 the city will pay for their transgressions.
Five Democratic members of Cincinnati Council – P.G. Sittenfeld, Greg Landsman, Tamaya Dennard, Chris Seelbach and Wendell Young – have admitted in the court case that they secretly held meetings via text messages and email.
They had been sued by Mark Miller, treasurer of the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST).
With the five council members in the courtroom, Hamilton County Common Pleas Court Judge Robert Ruehlman gave a blistering lecture to the council members who have become known as the "Gang of Five."
The five members of council did not speak in the half-hour hearing Thursday morning.
Ruehlman, though, had plenty to say.
"You essentially lied to the people of this city,'' Ruehlman said to the council members. "People thought there had been a council meeting, but that was a charade. The real meeting was held with you exchanging text messages."
"You have lost the trust of your fellow council members and you have lost the trust of the people of this city,'' Ruehlman said.
Legally, there is nothing Ruehlman can do to force the five members to resign, but he said he believes they should.
"I really believe these five council members should resign and pay it back,'' said Ruehlman. "No voter in this city should ever vote for one of these council members again."
But, he said, if the council members were to resign and reimburse the city for the money it spent on the settlement of the case, "maybe there is redemption for them sometime down the road."
Gwen McFarlin, the chairwoman of the Hamilton County Democratic Party, put out a statement after the hearing saying Ruehlman is "a rubber stamp for Republican extremists like Christopher Smitherman, (lawyer) Chris Finney and COAST - his Republican friends who actually stood to benefit both politically and financially from his statements and actions."
In the settlement agreement Ruehlman signed Thursday morning, Young went further than the rest – he admitted to deleting all the texts that had been sought in the court case. A Hamilton County grand jury is looking into that aspect of the case. Ruehlman said he will investigate whether or not that actually happened and hold a hearing on April 1 on Young's case.
Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters released a statement saying, "We cannot tell when Young's text messages were deleted. Some text messages were in fact deleted."
Young could conceivably be charged with contempt of court.
Judge says if what Croswell said is true, he'll cancel the 4/1 hearing.
— Jay Hanselman (@JayHanselman) March 7, 2019
The fact that five members of the nine-member City Council were involved in the texting is significant. That represents a majority of council – making it a violation of the Ohio Open Meetings Act, which requires public notification of meetings of bodies such as City Council.
Ruehlman ordered all five council members to be in his courtroom Thursday morning while lawyers for both sides agreed to a formal settlement of the case, which he signed.
Council Member Sittenfeld issued a statement shortly after the hearing. "...Having a quorum participating on one thread was an honest mistake, for which I've apologized, and which won't happen again," he wrote. "In the midst of the difficult situation our City was in last spring, Councilmembers were trying to prevent a political spectacle. Still, the conversation absolutely should have happened in Council Chambers."
Starting in January 2018, the five Democratic council members began texting each other about everything from city contracts, the controversy over the site of the FC Cincinnati soccer stadium, and whether or not to fire then-City Manager Harry Black.
There were two such electronic meetings which amounted to illegal secret meetings of City Council.
In his statement, Sittenfeld said the lawsuit "hijacked" the "important business" of City Council, and called it "politically motivated actions of a local right-wing group and their affiliated law firm, whose goals, put simply, are to cause chaos and enrich themselves."
Miller is represented by Brian Shrive, a lawyer with the Finney Law Firm, which has represented COAST for years.
"The public should be aware of the degree of the invasion of privacy attempted by Brian Shrive - representing the local right-wing group and their law firm," Sittenfeld wrote. "He has gone after personal correspondence that includes family health information, conversations between husbands and wives - and even tried to get financial information from my wife's grandmother."
The city will end up paying out $101,000, which includes $11,000 paid to Miller - $1,000 for the illegal meetings and $10,000 for Young's destruction of texts. The remaining $90,000 goes to the Finney Law Firm.
Sittenfeld's full statement is below and you can read the full 600-plus pages of released text messages here, which the city released Thursday afternoon.
I was first elected to City Council in 2011. Since then, I have focused my time and energy on things that actually improve my constituents’ lives - such as saving the Over-the-Rhine Senior Center; improving our bus system; creating good new jobs for an innovation-based economy; and keeping kids safe when they’re walking to school.
Let me repeat two things I’ve said before: First, having a quorum participating on one thread was an honest mistake, for which I’ve apologized, and which won’t happen again. In the midst of the difficult situation our City was in last spring, Councilmembers were trying to prevent a political spectacle. Still, that conversation absolutely should have happened in Council Chambers. The response to what was an honest mistake, however, has been for people who don’t have the City’s best interests at heart to work overtime to create chaos and carry out a political agenda.
The second thing I’ll reiterate is that the content of my own texts are more of the same of what’s previously been released. There are things I certainly would have said more artfully, but I’m a human being, and the voters have always known they were electing a real person, a flesh-and-blood human being.
Recently the important business of the City has been hijacked by politically motivated actions of a local right-wing group and their affiliated law firm, whose goals, put simply, are to cause chaos and enrich themselves.
The public should be aware of the degree of the invasion of privacy attempted by Brian Shrive - representing the local right-wing group and their law firm. He has gone after personal correspondence that includes family health information, conversations between husbands and wives — and even tried to get financial information from my wife’s grandmother.
I am proud of the work that my team and I have undertaken since first being elected in 2011. During the past eight years, I have never once lost sight of the reason why I first ran for office - and that is to make positive change and get things done for the people of our community, and that’s exactly what I will continue to do.