Suit: 'Cabal' of 'rogue' Cincinnati city council members held illegal, secret meetings about Harry Black

Updated: Apr. 10, 2018 at 9:52 AM EDT
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CINCINNATI, OH (FOX19) - Drama at Cincinnati City Hall over the mayor's failed attempt - at least so far - to oust the city manager has hit the courts.

A government watchdog group alleges in a lawsuit filed Monday the majority of Cincinnati City Council violated Ohio's Open Meeting Act and the city charter last month by holding illegal, secret meetings via email and text messages to discuss John Cranley asking Harry Black to resign.

The suit names P.G. Sittenfeld, Tamaya Dennard, Wendell Young, Chris Seelbach and Greg Landsman.

"This action results from the conduct of a cabal of five rogue members of the Cincinnati City Council, whereby this cabal conducted illegal meetings of a majority of the members of the Cincinnati City Council, attempting to decide matters of great public import behind closed doors and in secret communications, ad subverting the public's right to know and understand the actions of its public officials," the lawsuit states.

Emails attached to the lawsuit are described as documentation of the violation, including two press releases about the city manager from the five council members. One email is titled "Draft Letter for Council Majority to release" and another one from Seelbach to Landsman has a subject line "Revised Letter" and indicates they are all texting each other on a group string.

"Greg. Are you getting texts. Everyone has approved on text chain. Are you good?"

At the time, Seelbach was in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico planning his wedding, according to his Twitter account, and Landsman said in a radio interview was in Israel on business unrelated to the city.

One of the press releases, signed by the five council members, states they wouldn't encourage or assist "the intentional denigration of another black leader in our community."

The second release states they do not support a more than $400,000 severance payment to Black that he and the mayor agreed on, which would fork over more than eight months of his salary than his current contract stipulates.

Sittenfeld declined comment. The other council members named in the suit could not be immediately reached for comment.

The council majority has refused to fire Black, saying Cranley's objections to him are personal and political and not based on his job performance.

Black said he wants to stay.

Last week, council approved a plan for Dennard and David Mann to lead an investigation into allegations of misconduct by Cranley against Black.

Attorney Brian Shrive of the Finney Law Firm filed the suit in Hamilton County Common Pleas Court on behalf of Mark Miller as a citizen.

Miller is the treasurer of the conservative group COAST, Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes. Attorney Chris Finney founded COAST.

Shrive, in the last election, donated $1,100 to Vice Mayor Christopher Smitherman's campaign, according to our news partners at the Cincinnati Enquirer. Smitherman supports Black resigning with the larger settlement.

The suit asks the court to prohibit council from conducting any secret meetings or commit further violations of the Open Meeting Act and to declare any action from them invalid.

Shrive said Tuesday he spoke with city attorneys Monday and is hopeful the two sides will reach a settlement shortly. They would collaborate on and agree to an entry to submit to the court for approval that would state Council will not hold private meetings, produce the text messages and minutes of the meetings.

The city also would pay his legal fees, which run $250 per hour.

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