FC Cincinnati leaders met with Cincinnati City Council behind the scenes for weeks

When Cincinnati City Council agreed last week to spend $37 million on the FC Cincinnati soccer stadium project, it didn’t come without questions or controversy.

The three council members who voted against the deal criticized FC leaders and the city administration for rushed timing, lack of transparency and vague details.

Tax foes called the deal a “sham of a process” and said FC leaders hid details from the public and “instead opted for closed door meetings and secrecy.”

To help pay for the stadium project, the city will drain $7.38 million from a reserve fund, take $2.5 million from its annual budget next year and commit millions of dollars every year from a hotel tax.

WCPO analyzed which city leaders met with FC Cincinnati General Manager Jeff Berding, team owner Carl Lindner III and FC consultant Jim McGraw since May 1, and how often.

WCPO requested official meetings Mayor John Cranley and the nine Cincinnati City Council members scheduled with team’s leaders.

The records reveal the club's leaders spent months privately lobbying all but two city council members to support a new soccer stadium.

The closed-door meetings ramped up in November as a city-wide election loomed and the deadline to bid for a Major League Soccer franchise got closer.

The records also reveal team leaders targeted the most influential voices – Cranley and Councilwoman Yvette Simpson, who was challenging him for mayor – with the most meetings. Berding frequently spoke with Councilman Charlie Winburn, who chairs the powerful Budget and Finance Committee

Team leaders did not visit some council members – Wendell Young, who has spent months recovering from heart surgery and was not present for the council vote, and Chris Seelbach, who openly criticized the plan and voted against it. 

Vice Mayor David Mann, who voted for the stadium project, also reported no private meetings on his official schedule with FC leaders.

Here’s a timeline of the meetings that took place. Some council members provided phone calls in their response to WCPO's request:

May 1: Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld met with Berding for an hour.

May 25: Cranley and Mann attended a charity event “roasting” Berding.

SummerSimpson met with Berding during her campaign for mayor, an informational session about FC Cincinnati (she did not provide an exact date).

Summer: Simpson met with Berding and Lindner III to discuss her campaign(she did not provide an exact date).

Aug. 8: Cranley met with non-profit development agency 3CDC’s director Steve Leeper and Berding at 3CDC.

Aug. 8: Councilman Kevin Flynn met with Berding at the FC Cincinnati headquarters.

Aug.16: Cranley met with Berding and Leeper again.

On or about Oct. 15: Around this time, Winburn and Berding had a 15-minute phone call.

Nov. 1: Councilwoman Amy Murray met with Berding at Keating Muething Klekamp law firm (where FC Cincinnati consultant Jim McGraw is a partner).

Nov. 3: Sittenfeld spoke with McGraw and Murray for 30 minutes via phone to discuss FC Cincinnati.

Nov. 9: Cranley met with Berding (two days after winning re-election) for one hour at City Hall.

Nov. 12: Councilman Christopher Smitherman met with Berding for 30 minutes at a Starbucks in Hyde Park.

Nov. 15: Winburn spoke with Berding for roughly two minutes about FC Cincinnati.

Nov. 15 - 17 (on or about): Winburn, met for an hour with Berding and McGraw at Keating Muething Klekamp law firm.

Nov. 16: Winburn had a two-minute phone call with Berding.

Nov. 24-27 (unsure of date): Simpson met with Berding at some point, after returning from vacation.

Nov. 26: Winburn spoke by phone for 10 minutes with Lindner to discuss the vote that week.

Nov. 27: Cranley met with Berding from 9:30 to 10 a.m. --just an hour before the Budget and Finance Committee vote on funding for FC Cincinnati.

Less than 24 hours after Election Day, Berding announced he had the support of newly re-elected Cranley for a taxpayer-backed stadium plan.

The public had little time – just 11 days – to weigh in on the plan council approved.

But behind the scenes, Berding was busy for weeks meeting with council members.

Cranley declined to offer specifics about his meetings with Berding, saying only: "Throughout the year it was my assumption that the county-controlled hotel/motel tax would be used. When it became clear that the county would not use this funding source, I asked the commissioners to release the city's portion of this tax and created a plan."

Simpson told WCPO she held three meetings with FC Cincinnati leaders, none of which she listed on her official calendar.

Two of the meetings, she said, were over the summer during her campaign for mayor.

“It was just kind of a casual sit-down, we want you to check out a game, we want you to see the momentum,” Simpson said of her first meting with Berding.

The second time, she said she met with both Berding and Carl Lindner III to discuss her campaign.

And just days before council’s vote Nov. 27 for a $37 million infrastructure package on the topic, Berding visited her again.

“The time we talked about the official plan, which was after the proposal was already out,” said Simpson, who had just returned from a vacation before the meeting.

“Frankly, I had just gotten back," Simpson said."I honestly didn’t know they were going to take the vote on Monday (Nov. 27) – just because it was so fast.”

Simpson said Cranley’s proposal in late November was the first time she had ever heard of plans to use a hotel tax to fund the stadium.

She voted against the deal, along with Seelbach and P.G. Sittenfeld.

“I am sincerely surprised that five members of Council would sign-off on handing over tens of millions of dollars -- including draining a crucial source of scarce capital reserves -- with essentially no community engagement, with major unanswered questions lingering,” Sittenfeld said in a Facebook post last week.

Even as Cranley urged council to vote for the deal, he admitted the timing was rushed. But he also promised if council approved it, a new stadium would spur jobs and development.

"I didn't choose the timing, but the timing is upon us," Cranley said. "Big cities have to be nimble -- we have to move quickly to get big things done."

The MLS is expected to announce later this month which two cities will be awarded a franchise. Cincinnati is a finalist along with Detroit, Nashville and Sacramento.

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