CINCINNATI -- Did five members of council violate the state’s public meeting laws when they exchanged emails, texts and phone calls about the city manager’s job status?
A local government watchdog group believes so, and on Monday sued five Cincinnati City Council members for electronically communicating with one another.
Attorney Brian Shrive filed the lawsuit in Hamilton County Court of Common Pleas on behalf of Mark Miller as a citizen. Miller is treasurer of the conservative Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes, known as COAST.
P.G. Sittenfeld, Wendell Young, Chris Seelbach, Tamaya Dennard and Greg Landsman, are named in the lawsuit, which describes them as “a cabal of five rogue members of the Cincinnati City Council.” All five are Democrats.
The lawsuit accuses them of “attempting to decide matters of great public import behind closed doors and in secret communications, and subverting the public’s right to know and understand the actions of its public officials.”
But Young’s office criticized the lawsuit in a written statement.
“The entire purpose of a press release calling for transparency is to ensure that the public can read it right away. The sad irony is that COAST’s true goal is to stick the taxpayers with another bloated legal bill,” Young said.
Sittenfeld, Seelbach and Landsman declined to comment. Dennard did not immediately return a request for comment.
At issue is how these five council members created two news releases that were sent to the media on March 16 and March 18. The group issued joint statements outlining their position on Mayor John Cranley’s request that City Manager Harry Black resign.
Cranley asked the city manager to resign on March 9 citing retaliatory and abusive behavior by Black against city employees.
This caused a deep fracture between four members of council who believed Black should be allowed to leave with a $423,000 severance payment, and five other members who are named in the lawsuit.
The five council members sent a joint statement to the media on March 16 asking that a special counsel be used to investigate the situation. A second statement, sent on March 18, reiterated their call for a ceasefire and their opposition to a big buyout settlement for Black.
The first new release caught the eye of Shrive as a “red flag,” because five council members had come to a decision about their stance on an important city issue, without ever attending a public meeting on the topic.
“A majority of council can’t come to a decision except in a public meeting,” Shrive said.
The lawsuit alleges a violation of Ohio’s Open Meetings Act, which says all meetings of a public body must be open to the public. And the Ohio Supreme Court has ruled that “round robin texts” cannot be used to circumvent that law, he said.
“You can’t send a series of emails back and forth conducting business,” Shrive said.
That is exactly what the lawsuit claims happened.
Attached to the lawsuit are several emails -- including one from Sittenfeld on March 16 to the other four members, with “draft letter” in the subject line.
None of the five council members included on the email chain were present during a special city council meeting the mayor called earlier in the day to discuss issues surrounding the city manager.
But they spent most of the afternoon emailing, texting and calling one another to discuss the matter, according to public records WCPO obtained.
“Below is an aggregation of people’s thoughts and suggestions, put into the format of a letter. We can discuss on the call at 1:30 p.m. today,” Sittenfeld said in the email.
Later Seelbach emailed the group saying, “Greg, are you getting the texts? Everyone has approved on the text chains. Are you good?”
At the time, Landsman was out of the country.
WCPO requested and obtained copies of all council members’ calendars.
Sittenfeld’s calendar reveals he had scheduled a phone call with Dennard, Seelbach, and Young between 1:30 p.m. and 2:15 p.m. on March 16. The news release from the five members of council was sent roughly 30 minutes after the phone call ended.
“This lawsuit is designed, specifically to enjoin the city from conducting these meetings going forward,” Shrive said.
If Shrive wins the lawsuit, he will ask the city to pay for his attorney’s fees. Milford taxpayers ended up shelling out $36,000 in Shrive’s legal fees last year because the city fought his lawsuit.
“If the city wants to take that route they can,” Shrive said. “I would hope they would act quickly to correct this and be forthcoming with the records with the text messages, along with any other emails, and move forward. But if not, if council members and the city want to engage in protracted litigation, then we’ll do that as well.”
Shrive said adamantly that COAST, and he himself, files lawsuits against Republicans, Democrats and Independents, and this is not party-specific.