CINCINNATI – City Manager Harry Black accused the mayor of playing in an unethical and “intrusive role” in the city’s economic development deals.
Black listed his complaints about Mayor John Cranley’s involvement in a memo released Wednesday.
That memo is the latest in an escalating drama at City Hall that has continued almost nonstop since Cranley asked the city manager to resign March 9, citing retaliatory behavior against employees and other problems. Black and Cranley -- as well as their allies -- have dealt a string of back-and-forth blows made in an effort to sway public opinion to their side since then.
Black says his latest concerns stemmed from the mayor’s involvement with two private businesses: one looking to buy rights to a city-owned parking garage in 2016 and the other hoping to sign a deal last year on an Elm Street property the city owns.
The mayor, who has touted his business-friendly approach at City Hall and on the campaign trail, acknowledged that he’s been involved in economic development deals but denied anything about his work has been unethical.
“The charter and the public expects that the mayor is involved with economic development,” Cranley said in a statement. “I am proud to have made a difference bringing jobs to the city. Only I can refer legislation to council on economic development. Therefore, I have to be involved and should be. I am fully ethical and transparent and reject any insinuation otherwise.”
The memo the city manager released Wednesday alleges former Economic Development Director Oscar Bedolla was troubled to hear Cranley might be mixing campaign fundraising with city business back in 2016.
According to Black, Bedolla told him more than a year ago, on Oct. 27, 2016 about concerns with a development deal called "Project Reshore."
Black says a city lobbyist told Bedolla that Axcess Financial, a Mason-based firm, held a fundraiser for the mayor.
“As part of that fundraiser allegedly the mayor made promises to this business owner that he would receive development air rights to build on top of the CET garage,” Black’s memo says.
The CET garage is a city-owned garage on Central Parkway in the West End.
It’s true that Axcess Financial reached out to the city about a development deal, said Jim Benedict, who represented the business in city meetings on behalf of Cincinnati-based firm Government Strategies Group.
But he says the rest of Black’s account isn’t.
“The hearsay allegation by Mr. Black is untrue,” Benedict said in a text message.
Federal campaign finance records show Axcess Financial Services PAC made a $2,500 donation to the Cranley’s Cincinnatus PAC in July 2016.
A spokeswoman for Axcess Financial could not immediately be reached.
Black said he worried about a July 2017 email Jay Kincaid, Cranley’s former chief of staff, sent while working on Cranley’s re-election campaign.
In the email, Kincaid asked Bedolla about a development deal for his client, Kingsley and Company at 435 Elm St., a city-owned property.
At the time, Kincaid was no longer working at City Hall, and was acting as both a lobbyist for developers and a consultant on Cranley’s 2017 re-election campaign.
“Please let me know if you need anything else from us,” Kincaid wrote Bedolla in the email.
Kincaid said the exchange wasn’t improper.
“I have done nothing wrong, and the city manager knows that,” Kincaid said in a statement Wednesday.
But in handwritten notes date July 13, 2017 on the email, Black wrote that he found Kincaid’s email strange.
“I mentioned to the city solicitor that this concerned me, in terms of both the technical ethics implications, as well as the optics in that Mr. Kincaid is the former chief of staff to the mayor and key person working on the mayor’s campaign,” Black wrote in a July 13, 2017 memo to himself.
But Kincaid maintains he followed the law.
According to state law, no current or former public employees (for 12 months after leaving employment) can represent a client in which if they personally participated in city business about that client while working for the city.
"I did not work on any issue whatsoever related to the building of 435 Elm while I was an employee of the city of Cincinnati," Kincaid said.
Kingsley and Company did not immediately respond to a request for comment.