Gang of Five: Council’s secret emails are out

Updated: Mar. 27, 2019 at 10:59 PM EDT
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CINCINNATI, OH (FOX19) - More secret messages exchanged by Cincinnati City Council’s self-proclaimed “Gang of Five" are out.

The city was required to release the emails by midnight Wednesday as part of a lawsuit settlement over them and more than 20,000 of Council’s secret texts.

They were written last year and exchanged by P.G. Sittenfeld, Tamaya Dennard, Chris Seelbach, Greg Landsman and Wendell Young.

The text messages, which we already received back on March 7 when a judge signed the settlement, showed they conducted public business privately in violation of Ohio’s Open Meetings Act, the main allegation of the lawsuit, and the emails show some clear examples of that as well.

But while the texts were full of gossip, attacks and plots (one council member was sued for defamation the day after they came out), the emails appear to be much tamer, mostly professional and stick to city business.

Most of them are on their personal email accounts, not city ones.

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Out of 366 pages of emails, here’s some that stood out:

  • A March 2018 email from Sittenfeld to the other four “Gang” members of their group includes the full news release issued in March 2018 opposing Mayor John Cranley’s resignation package for then-city manager Harry Black. Sittenfeld wrote: "All: Below is an aggregation of people’s thoughts and suggestions, put out into the format of a letter. We can discuss on the call at 1:30 p.m. today. If everyone reaches a comfort level with it, then I believe we should release it this afternoon (rather than allow for a vacuum to continue) and it should be emailed out to the media from one of our aides - anyone want to volunteer for that? It was this press release that triggered an anti-tax activist’s suspicion the elected officials were conducting public business privately and ultimately resulted in the lawsuit.
  • Landsman emailed in February 2018 about a Pittsburgh Magazine story of the city’s official canine ambassador.“What do you think? Worth pursuing?" he wrote, inferring Cincinnati do something similar. Seelbach responded: “Amazing idea. But you do realize that I had a motion a couple years ago about making City Hall dog-friendly, even if it was just once a month of something. Of course (Mayor John) Cranley came back with a memo that said it would cost $100,000+/a year to do. He said we’d need to hire a full-time person to oversee it all, all kinds of crazy cleaning, supplies, etc. I always go back to Election Night 2013 at Roxanne’s party. (Roxanne Qualls unsuccessfully ran against Cranley for mayor that year). The only thing she said to me was ‘You know he hates animals, don’t you?’"
  • In a more recent exchange, Seelbach wrote to Dennard in August 2018: “I think Cranley covers his trail, so there won’t be any evidence of him giving orders to the administration, that is contrary to policy from Council,...but that’s what happening. He is telling (current City Manger) Patrick (Duhaney) and others what to do, including changing policy determined by Council....and they are doing it."
  • “Hello Colleagues," Dennard wrote in August 2018. “Will you support a moratorium from City Council to put a temporary halt on the criminalization of homelessness inside of city limits? At least until we can figure out together, the path forward? Please let me know as soon as you can. Thank you for your time and consideration. Sincerely, Tamaya." Her email is sent to the other four council members and the rest of council including Vice Mayor Christopher Smitherman, Greg Pastor, David Mann and other staff members including the current city manager. Seelbach responded “Yes.” Dennard wrote back: You are the only yes to far."
  • Cranley wrote to Landsman in July 2018 about a homeless tent camp: “First, don’t allow illegal and unhealthy and unsafe tents in public right ways, second, don’t impede law enforcement from doing their job and third, don’t treat illegal camps like a ‘neighborhood’ that should receive city services. Fourth, do what’s right for people - insist they go to available shelters - regardless of what ideological activists want or even what the homeless ‘want’ - sometimes people don’t know what’s right for them, but either way, they don’t have a right to infringe on the public good.”
  • In June 2018, Landsman emailed Sittenfeld about adding an additional, local layer to state law regarding City of Cincinnati Ethics and Anti-Corruption and Influence Laws “to help ensure that the city of Cincinnati has comprehensive ethics and anti-corruption-and-influence policies and practices, that are upheld by all who serve the City of Cincinnati in an elected or appointed position. The City of Cincinnati will offer additional training each year to elected officials and those appointed to serve the city on Ohio Ethics rules and regulations. The training will help to ensure all those responsible for complying with Ohio Ethics Law do so. The Administration will report to the Mayor and Council annually an update on compliance with Ohio Ethics Law for those affiliated with the City of Cincinnati who are responsible for complying with this state law....."

Read all of the emails below:

We reached out to all council members and a spokeswoman for the mayor, but did not hear back from most.

“Hey! Was there anything in there?” Landsman wrote in response to our text seeking comment.

A spokesman for P.G. Sittenfeld said he had no comment Wednesday night but might in the future.

FOX19 NOW will continue to update this story on air and online as we go through them. You can read all of them here.

The settlement of the lawsuit over these secret communications cost taxpayers $101,000 and much more if you consider the entire dispute involving the former city manager.

In all, the episode has resulted in nearly a million dollars including outside legal costs, the resignation package and then payout to avoid a lawsuit from Black, said Brian Shrive, attorney for the anti-tax activist who sued for the messages, Mark Miller.

Earlier this week, the vice mayor introduced a motion that would hold the “Gang of Five” responsible for paying the $101,000 settlement and penalties and another $75,000 in legal fees for those outside lawyers.

“The taxpayers of Cincinnati should not be responsible for paying this bill," Smitherman wrote.

On Wednesday, city officials gave Shrive copies of four checks for $200 each written by four of the “Gang” members: Seelbach, Sittenfeld, Landsman and Young. The checks repay their shares of the $1,000 fine for violating the Open Meetings Act.

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