‘Amen! We’re the new gang of five’: Secret Cincinnati City Council messages released ahead of hearing

Cincinnati City Council "Gang of Five."
Photo: FOX19 NOW/file
Cincinnati City Council "Gang of Five." Photo: FOX19 NOW/file
Updated: Oct. 22, 2018 at 10:53 AM EDT
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CINCINNATI, OH (FOX19) - More secret messages from a text string among five members of Cincinnati City Council were released by the group’s lawyer Friday, just ahead of a court hearing that would have prompted a similar release.

“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.

“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 text message string was first revealed in the spring, when city attorneys released them upon a FOX19 public records request and after others received them.

FOX19 sought them in response to a government watchdog group alleging in a lawsuit that the majority of Cincinnati City Council violated Ohio’s Open Meeting Act and the city charter.

The suit names P.G. Sittenfeld, Tamaya Dennard, Young, Seelbach and Landsman, and it’s one that’s already costing taxpayers.

Council recently approved spending up to $150,00 for lawyers for the “Gang of Five.”

At the time, Mayor John Cranley said the city had no choice but to take steps to protect itself legally since the city solicitor can’t represent the city in the case.

The suit describes the Democrats as “a cabal of five rogue members” of Council holding illegal, secret meetings via email and text messages to discuss Cranley asking Black to resign.

Council texts: Harry Black urged to seek counseling, mayor ‘flat-out lied’

Young said in an interview Friday night the messages don’t contain anything he wouldn’t say publicly.

But, in hindsight, he said he regrets communicating privately with his fellow elected officials and that the messages should have been public.

“There’s nothing in those released text messages that, in my opinion, is earth-shattering or anything of the kind. I didn’t say anything there that I haven’t said publicly or wouldn’t say publicly," Young said.

“Actually, it would have been very simple for the people who wanted those texts, at least on my part, for them to ask me for them. I would have given them to them. They wouldn’t have had to get a lawyer or go to court,” he said.

Young said he didn’t know the text messages were being released Friday.

“I’ve been out of touch with everybody since Wednesday. But we are all represented by a lawyer. If that decision was made, I’m OK with it, but I didn’t personally make it," he said.

He also said he thought the whole thing was overblown. He said he would have released the text messages to anyone who wanted them had they come to him before the suit was filed, but no one did.

“I think it’s a big to-do about really nothing. I think people thought that perhaps there was something so earth-shattering or whatever....but there was nothing salacious. I’m just a run-of-the-mill texter," he said.

Vice Mayor Chris Smitherman, however, strongly criticized the timing of the text messages release.

It was only done now, he said, in an attempt to undermine the upcoming court proceeding.

“What we see tonight is that my colleagues have selectively released text messages to try to share with the public that they’re being transparent. What the text messages show is that my colleagues were intentionally undermining our government,” said Smitherman.

“You see one of my colleagues even say ‘Aren’t we, aren’t we breaking the law?’ And then the response back is ‘Well, let me check on that.’

"So clearly they knew that they were breaking the Ohio Open Meeting Laws and the Sunshine Laws for the state of Ohio after swearing they would uphold the constitution of the city of Cincinnati.”

Smitherman said he thinks the release of the messages now will only exasperate the group’s problems Monday.

They are going before Hamilton County Common Pleas Court Judge Robert Ruehlman.

“Most likely I would think that Judge Ruehlman is going to request the comprehensive text messages from the carrier in order to match what my colleagues have dumped on a Friday and I think that what we will find is they were very selective in what they released tonight,” he said.

He said he thinks there are more text messages they have not yet released.

“Now that we know that my colleagues have broke the law, discovery is the next natural step," he said.

“And so we get to see as the public how they conspired and who conspired against our government. That then most likely will bring in the individual text messages between my colleagues to figure out how they put this thing together ... all of the messages that I have read so far are unbecoming of a Cincinnati City Council member and very troubling.”

Cranley said in a statement released via his spokeswoman: “Going forward, I hope city council members will stop putting loyalty to a gang ahead of the public good.”

The attorney who sued to bring the text messages to light, Brian Shrive, said the messages show a clear, organized and deliberate attempt by a majority of council members to circumvent the system and make important decisions about the city behind closed doors.

“This was clearly a hatch plan and clearly was intended to be a long term plan, Gang of Five," he said in an interview Friday night.

“This wasn’t intended to be about one or two issues. This was the next four years that they planned on being a shadow government for the entirety of Mayor Cranley’s second term."

Attorney Brian Shrive pores over secret Cincinnati City Council text messages released Friday...
Attorney Brian Shrive pores over secret Cincinnati City Council text messages released Friday in an interview with FOX19 NOW. (Photo: FOX19 NOW/Jennifer Edwards Baker)

Shrive doubted Young’s stance that he was not aware of the initial public records request for the texts.

"We filed public records requests that were served on the Clerk of Council, the city solicitor’s office and, as I recall, to Mr. Young’s office directly. If the city solicitor didn’t go to him and ask them for them, then there’s something wrong in the city solicitor’s office.

“City Council ought to look into that. If Wendell Young truly didn’t know that these records had been requested, then he and the rest of council should look into that.

“But the reality is, he knew. I think he’s just being dishonest with that, quite frankly with that,” Shrive said.

"He knew that these requests were being made and they refused to turn them over. And maybe it was at the advice of the city solicitor, I don’t know. But we made every reasonable attempt to get these, and they were refused to us.”

Next, as the lawsuit over the text messages continues to work through the courts, the city is going to turn over all the text messages and emails to the appeals court to review each one and determine which ones are public record and which are not, Shrive said.

The city and “Gang of Five” have filed a motion for a protective order asking the court to block Shrive from deposing them and from getting the texts and emails.

“We think the judge is going to deny that and give us access to the documents and access to the council members to depose them,” Shrive said. “Generally, we would want the documents first and then we would start the video depositions in a couple of weeks.”

The full string of texts can be found below.

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