CINCINNATI — Hours before their final Wednesday midnight deadline, city officials released the final batch of emails exchanged among five Democratic members of City Council throughout 2018.
Like the group chat that earned the “Gang of Five” a scolding from Judge Robert Ruehlman and the city a settlement bill of nearly $177,000, the emails are less striking for their contents — drafts of statements, policy questions, council members forwarding one another unusual messages from constituents — than for the sheer breadth of city business they discuss outside the bounds of Ohio’s Open Meetings Act.
In the 366 pages released Wednesday, council members P.G. Sittenfeld, Greg Landsman, Wendell Young, Tamaya Dennard and Chris Seelbach conferred about topics ranging from the homeless camp crisis to the embattled Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority through private Gmail accounts.
“It's just galling how much of the public's business is being done in secret, private communications you have to rely on the Gang of Five to give you the documents,” said attorney Brian Shrive, who represented conservative watchdog Mark Miller in his legal quest to publicize the private exchanges.
Shrive continued: "If they had been using an @cincy.gov email address, when you do a public records request, the Solicitor can just find the emails themselves. They don't have to rely on members on their honor to provide their email. But when they send by private email, the Solicitor has to ask on ‘Scouts Honor’ for them to provide the emails relevant to the request. I have no idea if we received all the emails, and I’ll never know.“
Miller filed suit against the group after they released a joint statement about the bitter public feud between Mayor John Cranley and then-City Manager Harry Black, who would ultimately resign under pressure after rumors he was abusive and retaliatory toward his employees began to circulate.
Ohio’s Open Meetings Act requires most government meetings be accessible to the public, but the five Democrats’ text message chain and Wednesday’s emails revealed the process of creating the statement had been conducted privately.
In one of the newly released emails containing a draft of the statement, Seelbach explicitly asks Landsman: “Greg. Are you getting texts? Everyone has approved on text chain. Are you good?”
Some of the pettiness of the group’s text exchanges did re-emerge in their emails, particularly where Cranley was concerned. The month before the statement that would derail City Hall for the following year, Landsman forwarded Seelbach an email about a dog appointed “canine ambassador” of the city of Pittsburgh.
Cranley would never go for it in Cincinnati, Seelbach replied.
“I always go back to Election Night 2013 at Roxanne’s party,” he wrote. “The only thing she said to me was, ‘You know he hates animals, don’t you?’”