CINCINNATI, OH (FOX19) - A prominent local group of African American ministers is calling on Cincinnati City Council’s self-proclaimed “Gang of Five” to come clean and release their secret text messages.
“This sorry situation reminds us of a passage from the Bible. John 3:20 states: ‘Everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come into the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. It’s well past time that the Gang of Five comes clean with the Citizens of Cincinnati," reads a two-page letter signed by several ministers and pastors including the Rev. Mark Bomar, president of the Baptist Ministers Conference.
Released Thursday, the letter comes as a court battle over the Gang’s secret text messages and emails moves from Hamilton County Common Pleas Court to a higher court, the First District Court of Appeals.
Last month, Common Pleas Court Judge Robert Ruehlman directed the Gang of Five and city officials to release all communications Jan. 1 to present (Oct. 23).
He also ordered council members to be deposed by Brian Shrive, an attorney representing the anti-tax activist, Mark Miller of COAST, who sued for their secret communications earlier this year when his public records request for them went unanswered.
But that has not happened.
Instead, City Solicitor Paula Boggs Muething filed an appeal last week to the judge’s order on the grounds it would force council members to turn over text messages and other communications that should be considered privileged and confidential between them and their lawyers, court records show.
It’s not clear when the appeals court may rule.
In the meantime, however, the Gang and their lawyer can’t just ignore the judge’s order or try to seek exemption, Shrive wrote in court records earlier this week.
“Absent a stay, this Court retains jurisdiction to enforce its order,” he wrote in a motion filed Monday in Hamilton County Common Pleas Court.
The Gang is “in contempt of this Court’s lawful order and should be required to show cause why they should not be held in contempt for their failure to comply with the Discovery Order," his motion reads.
On Wednesday, Shrive went to higher court and filed a motion to dismiss the Gang’s appeal.
The Gang, he wrote in court records, can’t use attorney-client privilege now on appeal to escape a judge’s order to release their secret text messages and emails.
Council’s self-named “Gang of Five” is P.G. Sittenfeld, Tamaya Dennard, Wendell Young, Chris Seelbach and Greg Landsman.
Sittenfeld and Dennard declined comment Thursday.
“The matter is in court. We’ll let the court decide what to do and just wait," Young said Thursday.
“We have to be kinder to one another, and the whole text message issue just reinforces that," said Landsman. “We also have to be way more focused on the issues people care about and need us to work on together, and this has also made that absolutely clear.”
They are the target of a lawsuit from Miller seeking to uncover all the secret communications on the basis they violate the state’s open meeting laws.
Lawyers for the gang have released dozens of text messages exchanged on council members' group string between Jan. 19 to March 24.
“Amen! We’re the new ‘gang of five,'” reads one of the texts from Councilman Wendell Young. “I pray we stay strong and continue to trust each other. We have the power to move this forward.”
The 79-pages of messages include conversations about then-City Manager Harry Black promising Councilman Chris Seelbach he would fix problems with the streetcar if Seelbach would vote to keep Black; appointment of Mayor John Cranley’s nominee to the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority board (which was ultimately rejected in a 6-3 vote) and FC Cincinnati’s stadium in the West End.
“I’m game to make it a gang of 7 even!” Sittenfeld wrote in one of the texts. “I know mann (sic) and Pastor must be lonely over there!”
Young responded: “Good news. Please share when you can. I think maybe mann (sic) more than Pastor.”
But hundreds more secret communications are still believed to be out there, including ones exchanged between just two council members.
“One reason the Gang of Five has tried to prevent the rest of the text messages from being released publicly is that they are potentially ‘embarrassing,'” reads the ministers' letter.
“The city’s money and resources shouldn’t be squandered trying to protect people’s reputations caused by their own words. The City of Cincinnati has more important problems to tackle using limited resources."
Here is their letter in its entirety:
There are few principals that most Americans hold dear, whether they are liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican. One of these principals is that our government - at every level - should conduct its business transparently and be accountable to citizens.
Unfortunately, as we’ve learned during the past several months, that is a principal not always adhere to at Cincinnati City Hall.
A City Council faction that calls itself “the Gang of Five” are flagrantly disobeying a court order to turn over documents as part of the discovery process in a lawsuit. The suit challenges the illegal secret meetings that began shortly after the new council was sworn in and appear to have continued at least until April of this year - well after the lawsuit was filed.
In direct defiance of Ohio’s Open Meeting Law, this faction has deliberated city business outside of the public eye by using group text messages on their cellphones. Led by Councilmember P.G. Sittenfeld, the faction includes Tamaya Dennard, Greg Landsman, Chris Seelbach and Wendell Young.
So far, the Gang of Five has turned over some of the text messages to a judge. Anyone who reads them can tell it appears the council faction continued these secret meetings even though they knew they were illegal. This is gross neglect of the public trust.
The text messages also reveal Councilmember Seelbach promised his support to Cincinnati’s previous city manager in exchange for the City Manager vowing to back actions sought by the councilmember on the streetcar and the “responsible bidder ordinance.” That smacks of quid pro quo.
Amazingly, the Gang of Five has even admitted to texting each other during City Council meetings. The lack of shame and disrespect for the law has created an untenable situation at City Hall.
Facing legal pressure, the Gang of Five leaked some text messages to their political ally, Derek Bauman, in an unsuccessful attempt to drag Vice Mayor Christopher Smitherman into the lawsuit.
This underhanded maneuver happened at a time when the Vice Mayor’s family was dealing with his wife’s serious illness. His wife is now receiving home hospice care.
It as this attempt to drag the Vice Mayor into the lawsuit that created the need for the City to hire outside legal counsel, wasting taxpayer dollars that could otherwise be used to help struggling African-American children and families.
One reason the Gang of Five has tried to prevent the rest of the text messages from being released publicly is they are potentially “embarrassing.” The City’s money and resources shouldn’t be squandered trying to protect people’s reputations caused by their own words. The City of Cincinnati has more important problems to tackle using limited resources.
We know from the text messages released so far the Gang of Five insulted Mayor Cranley, calling him slurs like “little sucker.”
Let’s be clear: The Gang of Five pontificates publicly about transparency, while holding secret deliberations behind the scenes. The Gang of Five preaches civility in public, but privately describes colleagues using vile and crude language.
This sorry situation reminds us of a passage from the Bible. John 3:20 states: “Everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come into the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed.”
It’s well past time that the Gang of Five comes clean with the Citizens of Cincinnati."