CINCINNATI, OH (FOX19) - Cincinnati’s vice mayor is calling for a charter change so taxpayers don’t get stuck footing the bill again should their elected city leaders violate the state’s Sunshine Law.
The city - ultimately taxpayers - forked over $176,000 to settle a lawsuit and to pay outside legal fees after five members of Cincinnati City Council who referred to themselves as “Gang of Five” admitted to breaking Ohio’s Open Meetings Act.
The lawsuit, filed by an anti-tax activist, uncovered that they were privately deciding city business by secretly messaging each other via text and emails. The council members are P.G. Sittenfeld, Chris Seelbach, Tamaya Dennard, Greg Landsman and Wendell Young.
Christopher Smitherman told FOX19 NOW Thursday he plans to start going “door-to-door” collecting signatures on a petition to get the measure on the fall ballot. He will need to gather about 6,600 signatures.
“I think citizens will be on our side. I think the majority of citizens do not believe the $176,000 legal bill and penalties are the responsibility of the taxpayers, no matter what their political leanings are," he said.
" I am sure they are fed up with the Gang of Five and paying this bill. I have not spoken with anybody who has said to me ‘hey, I think the taxpayers should pay the bill.’
Last week, city officials released 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.
“If we were able to police ourselves on the matter, the state auditor would not have requested all the paperwork on this and received it in the last two weeks,” Smitherman said.
"So this clearly caught the attention of our state auditor. Is this the correct appropriation of taxpayer dollars? It’s a problem. I don’t want to have to dealt with this again. Our bosses, the voters, should be able to say if they think they should have to pay those bills and penalties. And I believe they are going to say they don’t want to. This is what happens when Council can’t police ourselves. We have to go to our bosses, the voters.”
The “Gang of Five” could be hit with findings for recovery on the city’s next state audit.
Those are assertions public money was misspent and must be repaid.
Ohio Auditor Keith Faber said in an in interview with FOX19 NOW March 14 he would look into public records in Cincinnati, particularly as it relates to council following the state’s Open Meetings Act.
“I am very troubled by the fact that you have five city council members who knew better, and the texts indicated that they knew better that are acting to conduct public business through texting. That’s a big concern,” he told FOX19 NOW Thursday.
“As we looked at that issue, they spent ($101,000) fighting something on an issue they should have known they should have given up. We will look into whether there will be findings for recovery. We will look at that as part of our next audit. Generally, those are against an individual, but could be against the city council member. I am particularly troubled when you have a council member destroying his texts.”
Smitherman’s proposal also includes a stipulation that council members attend Sunshine Law training and not have someone else do it for them.
Cincinnati City Council designated their council clerk as the public records training designee representing Mayor John Cranley and City Council for the 2018-2022 term, city records show.
State House Bill 9 requires all elected officials to attend public records training offered by the Ohio offices of the Attorney General and Auditor or to assign a designee to represent them. So Cincinnati City Council is not alone by having a designee do this and then report back to them.
Each elected official is required to attend the three-hour records training session each term in which they are elected to serve in office if a designee is not assigned, a copy of a March 21, 2018 motion shows.