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Cincinnati City Hall hopes new ethics panel will shore up public trust after council arrests

Cincinnati City Hall
Posted at 6:42 PM, Jan 27, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-27 20:54:13-05

CINCINNATI — After three high-profile arrests involving City Council members accused of cutting crooked deals with local property developers, Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley has appointed an ethics panel to reevaluate the city’s official interactions with developers.

The need for the panel is depressing, Cranley said Wednesday.

Cranley appointed the members of the nine-seat panel, which includes former lawyers, judges, business leaders, political leaders, a pastor and a real-estate developer.

"We're in a deep hole in terms of public confidence,” added Councilman David Mann. “It's something that requires a meaningful and serious response."

One of the members of the ethics panel, Doug Schimberg, is a property developer who has donated to Cranley's political campaigns in the past. When a reporter asked Cranley if the developer's previous contributions also could present a conflict of interest, the mayor said, "The alleged corruption came out of City Council, not the mayor's office."

Cranley went on to elaborate that a developer's input on the panel is necessary.

"There's no way that the committee can comprehensively understand all the issues that are involved if they don't hear directly and have, I think, meaningful and quality input from a committee that knows all elements and all sides of these experiences," he said.

Cranley's nine appointees -- which still require confirmation from City Council -- are:

  • Ann Marie Tracey (Chair): Former chair of the Ohio Ethics Commission; retired Hamilton County Common Pleas Court judge; professor emeritus, Xavier University; former assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Ohio
  • Verna Williams: Dean and Nippert professor of law, University of Cincinnati College of Law
  • Alicia Bond Lewis: Partner, Dinsmore & Shohl LLP
  • Dan Schimberg: President, Uptown Rental Properties, LLC
  • Bobbi Dillon: Senior manager, State Government Relations, Procter & Gamble Co.
  • KZ Smith: Senior pastor, Corinthian Baptist Church
  • Bernadette Wilson: Retired public information officer, Cincinnati Department of Health; chief of staff, former Mayor Charlie Luken
  • Tim Burke: President, Manley Burke LPA; former chairman, Hamilton County Democratic Party
  • Guy Guckenberger: Hamilton County Municipal Court judge; former Cincinnati City Council member; former Hamilton County commissioner

The three council members arrested were Tamaya Dennard, who campaigned on the promise of bringing an un-stuffy, accessible politics to City Hall; Jeff Pastor, who described himself as a “New Age Republican" dedicated to fighting poverty; and P.G. Sittenfeld, once an apparent front-runner to succeed Cranley in the mayor’s office.

All three were accused of soliciting money in exchange for tipping City Hall’s scales in certain local developers’ favor. Downtown and the nearby riverfront are sought-after real estate; the three council members offered to give their would-be benefactors a competitive edge when their projects came up for a vote, according to the FBI.

Dennard resigned from City Council and later pleaded guilty to honest services wire fraud in federal court. Pastor and Sittenfeld remain suspended.

"We plan to do a 360-degree review of the development process in the city of Cincinnati,” said Ann Marie Tracey, the former Hamilton County judge and assistant U.S. attorney appointed to chair Cranley’s panel. “In so doing, we are going to be examining not only what the process is, but who the players are. .. What changes might be necessary in the processes, whether there should be some suggested amendments to the city charter."

City Manager Paula Boggs Muething said the discussion will likely focus heavily on which parts of city government are allowed to interact directly with developers.

Currently, only the city administration negotiates with developers – meaning the mayor is allowed to speak directly to developers, but City Council members are not. Council decisions are purely legislative, Boggs Muething said.

“That’s probably the crux of what we are talking about,” she said.

City Council must approve the nine appointees on Cranley’s ethics panel before it can convene. Once approved, the panel will meet publicly every two weeks.