New secret council texts released: Behind the scenes of City Hall power struggle over city manager

City releases additional council texts

CINCINNATI, Ohio (FOX19) - More secret messages exchanged by Cincinnati City Council’s self-proclaimed “Gang of Five" are out.

The city released the latest batch Wednesday after a special master for Ohio Court of Claims ruled in favor of a local media outlet seeking the messages, ones we also have sought.

They were written last year and exchanged by P.G. Sittenfeld, Tamaya Dennard, Chris Seelbach, Greg Landsman and Wendell Young in the wake of Mayor John Cranley asking then-City Manager Harry Black to quit.

We also, for the first time, received a batch of the mayor’s texts.

Here are some of the highlights:

Regarding race and racial tensions

Exchange between Black and Sittenfeld regarding the mayor:

  • Sittenfeld: If Cranley throws dirt at you through the Enquirer, having Chief on record being supportive is great, but I think having Rocky (Merz, city spokesman) supply a quote from a community leader or NAACP accusing of attempt to slander you as a black leader is also good, habit of vengefulness, etc.

Exchange between Young, Seelbach, Sittenfeld, Landsman over prospect of a buyout of Black’s contract and reaction of the African American community:

  • Sittenfeld: Greg, just keeping you posted: Chris, Wendell, T, and I do NOT support a buyout for Harry. And AA community & leadership is outraged at prospect of buyout & force out.
  • Text source not identified: Just so you know, I spoke with John (Cranley) and he said the buyout was to help with the racial tension. I told him that was insulting.

Exchange between Sittenfeld and Seelbach over prospect of a buyout of Black’s contract and reaction of the African American community and the possibility of Dennard changing her position:

  • Seelbach: heard from Tamaya at all? If she’s solid, don’t think there’s anyway Greg flips
  • Sittenfeld: Don’t repeat, and I think good for you to ask her directly, but she told me she wasn’t sure and felt torn
  • Sittenfeld: More likely, she stays with us
  • Sittenfeld: But honestly I think Harry got her to feel sympathetic for him
  • Sittenfeld: If AA leaders lean on her, that’s best bet
  • Seelbach: you’re best to make that happen
  • Seelbach: Can’t believe Harry f----- us
  • Sittenfeld: Pretty weak
  • Sittenfeld: Will do with AA groups

Exchange between Young, Sittenfeld, Landsman, and Seelbach:

  • Sittenfeld: Separate FYI: the #2 at the Sentinels (organization of black Cincinnati police officers) just called me and asked that I pass this along: she and Lou Arnold just had a meeting with John (Cranley), where she said John tried to divide and conquer the Sentinels from the other African-American groups, and also intentionally misrepresented the Manager’s (Harry Black) position. Not for public consumption, but she asked that you all be notified.
  • Text source not identified: Divide and conquer is his thing. He (Cranley) tried to do that to me twice this week.
  • Young: You saw that on a larger scale during the Responsible Bidder wrangling. He tried to pit the Urban League, Ministers Alliance, CAA, and others against the NAACP, The Black Agenda, and more. Typical Cranley tactic. Don’t forget that he will lie in a heartbeat.

Exchange between Landsman and Seelbach regarding public statement about firing Black

  • Seelbach: Tamaya (Dennard) wants the public lynching in the statement, but I would settle about black leadership being under attack. Would you agree to that

Regarding Harry Black and job performance

Text from Seelbach to Young, Sittenfeld and Landsman regarding what he talked about with Black during a meeting on March 12:

  • My issues with him. Especially responsible bidder. That I’ve worked on it for almost 6 years. I’ve made compromise after compromise when the other side wouldn’t have given an inch. Had 1,000 meetings. And then he goes last week and testifies for hours about it will basically bankrupt the city and prevent all AA people from getting work... without even talking to me. And also his lack of any kind of leadership on fixing the streetcar. He agreed to specific things on both fronts, in addition to restarting our relationship in exchange for me not voting to fire him! And late night, not sober phone calls. Which I know others have talked to him about as well.

Text from Sittenfeld to Landsman and Seelbach:

  • Sittenfeld: Team, I knew there was one thing I meant to bring up that I forgot on the call. 4 of us at a time need to have a conversation with Harry about things he needs to improve. I’ve overtly told him I believe he needs to seek some sort of counseling. But he needs to hear it collectively from us, and frankly to understand that his job depends on correcting certain things.
  • Sittenfeld: Wendell, I’m okay with waiting if the others agree. HOWEVER, it’s a conversation that must be had - sooner rather than later. Harry struggles with some things and needs to know we support him, but also bring certain expectations. I’ll defer to the group on timing.

Texts between Seelbach and Sittenfeld

  • Seelbach: Did I tell you that Harry called me to tell me (for what he thought was the first time) about Denver... forgetting (because he was drunk or high) that he told me every detail Tuesday night at 10:30 p.m.
  • Seelbach: Seriously he needs help.
  • Seelbach: He can do whatever he wants on his own time.. But he cannot make calls or received (sic) calls when drinking
  • Sittenfeld: If this happens after we make our expectations clear, or refuses to seek the appropriate help, at that point, it’ll have to be termination at the 8-months
  • Sittenfeld: but we need to share that with him collectively, and from a place of trying to support him thru what might be an actual disease.
  • Seelbach: Yes, I recorded our conversation Tuesday. He was 100% not sober. And he doesn’t even remember talking to me. BTW, I have recorded two conversations in my lifetime. The one with Cranley on Sunday. And Harry on Tuesday

Regarding Mayor John Cranley

Exchange between Sittenfeld and Young

  • Sittenfeld: Asked by a reporter whether John (Cranley) has the other 4 to support firing the Manager, John’s answer was, “I haven’t asked them yet."
  • Young: Mini-Trump is lying again

Exchange between Landsman and Sittenfeld:

  • Sittenfeld: It’s all f**king angling and politics rather than: what might actually allow us to keep a lid on the damn city so that it’s not a racial powder keg. and why the hell should we have to pay $600k to settle a personality dispute between two grown men! (Black and Cranley)

Exchange between Seelbach and Sittenfeld

  • Sittenfeld: You know John (Cranley) at 2pm told Harry, resign or I’ll launch a smear campaign against you.
  • Seelbach: No, I did not know that.
  • Seelbach: What was Harry’s response?
  • Sittenfeld: Not taking it
  • Sittenfeld: Our government is not a monarchy for John to discard people as he pleases

Exchange between Seelbach and Sittenfeld about allegations of ‘pay to play’at City Hall

  • Seelbach: told Harry has enough evidence of pay to play that FBI will be interested in ‘taking a look’
  • Sittenfeld: he should find a way to get that out, even if not from him
  • Sittenefld: changes the whole narrative
  • Sittenfeld: especially for why John would be so eager to get rid of him

Exchange between Dennard and Sittenfeld about Cranley

  • Dennard: He is truly something else. What do you think Harry has on John?
  • Sittenfeld: not sure - but if you made me guess some sort of contracting corruption

READ All newly-released texts between the Gang of Five below:

We are seeking comment from all council members and will update this story if we hear back.

A spokeswoman for the mayor did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday.

Vice Mayor Christopher Smitherman said the messages show Sittenfeld “is the clear ringleader in all of this” and that type of behavior is unbecoming of a statesman. Sittenfeld, he said, shows a consistent pattern of manipulation.

“We have someone who is willing to put their own political ambition above the city of Cincinnati and also fostering racial strife. That is what we have thought was going on, but this is confirmation,” he said. “At the heart of this he is manufacturing racial strife and I think the citizens of Cincinnati need to understand that Council Member P.G. Sittenfeld’s motive is to divide us, not bring us together. If you bring the totality of the messages together, it shows he is trying to play everyone against each other.”

He also noted a theme in some of the messages that he says appears to be certain members of council, including once again Sittenfeld, of “blackmailing” the former city manager.

READ Cranley’s emails about Harry Black below:

READ Cranley’s texts about Harry Black below:

Regarding use of public money to buy out Black’s contract

The messages released Wednesday also show Cincinnati city leaders considered but ultimately opted not to use public money to buy out Black’s contract last year as the power struggle over him grew worse at City Hall in March and April 2018.

Exchange between Sittenfeld and Seelbach

  • Sittenfeld: “the proposal that was floated to me was what if Harry was offered 8 months of public severance, and 10 months by a private source – would I support that."

Exchange between the mayor and Councilman David Mann

  • Mayor: “FYI too many ethical problems trying to get harry private money and harry probably wouldn’t agree anyway. Negotiations should be on a collaborative, chief and/or inclusive manager selection."

The next day, in a separate exchange with council members, Seelbach wrote: “Has this ever happened in the entire country? That private money pays a public employee to quit?”

Sittenfeld responded: “I have discomfort with it.”

Dennard originally texted “I’m fine with that” but then texted “That’s super weird and the optics are bad.”

It’s not clear in the messages released which individuals or companies would have provided some of Black’s severance - or if such a move would even be legal under the city’s charter, let alone ethical concerns.

Another text, from the mayor to Councilwoman Amy Murray, indicates the city had more than 24 witnesses willing to come forward and testify about Black.

  • Mayor: “Mann maybe putting in a motion tomorrow to lead manager investigators with Tamaya. Mann as a lawyer has been hired to do so by companies throughout his career. He will do all the work pro bono. We all know he will be fair. All of their work will become a public record, but will allow witnesses not to have to testify in front of media cameras and people like seelbach, harry or Wendell. There are over 24 witnesses who want to come forward on this. Need to get it moving and off my my desk. Should be led by council members. Supposedly this has been agreed to by pg and Tamaya. Keep confidential until Mann brings up tomorrow.”

Cranley said he and Black worked out a deal where Black would quit with $274,000 severance in his contract and agree to leave with a release of all claims against the city in exchange for a total payment including the severance of $423,000.

However, in messages released Wednesday, Black made it clear he did not agree to that, even referring to it in one text as “fake news.”

By that point, City Hall was the scene of a major public feud between the mayor and city manager. Both alleged wrongdoing against each other, and the majority of council didn’t want to fork over a huge payout.

Various council members also said at the time they felt allegations the men were making against each other should be looked into.

The dispute ended in April when Black lost the majority council support in the fallout over 16-year-old Kyle Plush’s death. Black quit literally minutes before a special City Council meeting convened to terminate him.

He left with the $274,000 in his contract -- but then collected another $370,000 later that year after his lawyers threatened to sue the following month.

That gave him a total compensation of $644,000 - all funded by taxpayers.

The messages released this week are just the latest in a series of private communications among council members we received this year and last.

Council’s “Gang of Five” entered into a settlement in March included the release the rest of the ones among themselves after an anti-tax activist sued for the secret texts in April 2018.

The lawsuit accused 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 in violation of Ohio’s Sunshine Law and the city charter.

The messages, upon release, indeed showed the five members of council were conducting public business in private in violation of Ohio’s Open Meetings Act.

The city of Cincinnati paid the anti-tax activist, Mark Miller of Coalition Opposed to Additional Taxes and Spending (COAST), $101,000 “as a civil forfeiture, statutory damages and payment of reasonable attorneys’ fees," city records show.

Here’s how it breaks out:

  • $90,000 to cover Miller’s court costs. He was represented by the Finney Law Firm.
  • $10,000 in statutory forfeiture for Councilman Wendell Young destroying his text messages by deleting them from his phone
  • $1,000 to Miller

This comes on top of $71,963 the city already spent last year in outside lawyers and a vendor Sittenfeld, Landsman, Seelbach, Dennard and Young.

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