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Mayor John Cranley removes City Manager Harry Black's $423K severance deal from council agenda

Posted at 2:01 PM, Mar 21, 2018
and last updated 2018-03-21 17:28:43-04

CINCINNATI -- The stalemate over whether Cincinnati City Manager Harry Black will stay at his job will drag into a third week: an expected vote on his severance package was canceled Wednesday.

Just minutes before the Cincinnati City Council meeting began, Mayor John Cranley removed a deal from the agenda that would have given Black a deal worth $423,767 to end his three-and-a-half year term as the city’s most powerful non-elected leader.

Cranley did not have the five city council votes necessary to get the deal approved. So he is taking a week to meet with leaders in hopes of forging a compromise or winning a fifth vote to his side, before council takes up the issue again March 28.

Earlier Wednesday, Cranley met with four of his Democratic colleagues -- David Mann, who supports the package, and P.G. Sittenfeld, Tamaya Dennard and Greg Landsman, who all oppose it.

“We agreed we should take some time over the next week to have a whole host of discussions with a variety of folks” such as police leaders, Cranley said.

“I do intend to put the severance package on the calendar next week, and hopefully by then, we have a status report on how all of these meetings have gone,” he said.

But it seems as if the battle lines that have divided city council since Cranley asked Black to resign March 9 are as entrenched as ever.

Speaker after speaker at Wednesday’s meeting urged city leaders to restore order to City Hall.

"I wish you all would get on with the business of running this doggone city," said one of many frustrated speakers.

The controversy began nearly two weeks ago when Cranley asked Black to resign. At first the two most powerful leaders in the city seemed to have reached a tentative agreement that would have allowed the city manager to step down peacefully.

But those talks broke down in a very public way. City council members took sides, and waged war with one other on social media.

So far, Councilmembers Mann, Jeff Pastor, Amy Murray and Vice Mayor Christopher Smitherman support the buyout package for the city manager, saying it allows him to leave with dignity, is typical of what a business CEO would receive, and doesn’t scare away future city manager candidates.

“Don’t hold the city manager hostage,” Pastor said.

Opposed to the deal are Councilmembers Dennard, Landsman, Sittenfeld, Wendell Young and Chris Seelbach. They want outside counsel to investigate Cranley’s claims that Black acts in an unprofessional, abusive and retaliatory way. They also oppose the deal as too expensive for taxpayers.

“If any of you were offered a half a million dollars to not work, would you take that deal?" Sittenfeld said. “It seems like a very hefty bill ... for the taxpayers to pay."

But Pastor attacked the five progressive Democratic opponents for being selectively concerned about city spending. He also accused many of them of voting for a similar deal when former city manager Milton Dohoney left in 2013.

“You can’t pick and choose when you want to throw the fiscal conservative card around when you don’t agree with the expenditure,” Pastor said.

Young wondered specifically what Black had done to make Cranley want to fire him. Black’s visit to a topless club on a 2016 taxpayer-funded trip to Denver, while “abhorrent,” wasn’t a good enough reason for him to lose his job, Young said.

“Put your cards on the table, lets be transparent,” Young said. “You want me to dismiss this man who a few months ago, we gave a raise to.”

On Wednesday, Council unanimously passed a whistleblower ordinance, submitted by Cranley, that would let city employees come forward to complain about retaliation or bad behavior, without fear of getting fired.

If council can’t agree next week, they may move forward with a public trial, of sorts, to investigate claims of bad behavior by Black. Cranley said that Black engaged in increasingly unprofessional, erratic behavior and retaliated against employees who complained.

But the controversy about whether Black should be fired -- or given an expensive severance package -- is more complicated than just a personality dispute between the mayor and city manager.

“There are these larger racial and cultural issues that need to be addressed,” Landsman said.

Dennard believes the Cincinnati Police Department treats black and white officers differently, and that city government has been unwilling to address that disparity.

“The people who have complaints against the city manager are important to me, but no more important than police officers and their treatment within the Cincinnati Police Department,” Dennard said. “No resolution (with Black) … without addressing those issues is satisfactory.”

Cranley asked for Black's resignation the same week Black and Police Chief Eliot Isaac, both of them black men, were ousting Assistant Police Chief David Bailey, who is white. In a memo, Isaac alleged Bailey undermined an ongoing process to refresh the landmark Collaborative Agreement, originally reached as part of a settlement over allegations of racial profiling within the police department.

Several organizations, including the Cincinnati chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Black United Front, argue there are bigger issues in the police department that need to be investigated. They also accuse Cranley of a "power grab" and say he has targeted numerous black leaders during his tenure.

Sittenfeld assured citizens that city work is unphased by this dispute, and urged them to “let us know if your trash isn’t getting picked up.”

“If any of this soap opera … interferes with the actual business of the city, that is a massive problem,” he said.

But he hinted that the coming week at City Hall may be as chaotic as the past two.

“A resolution will not be easily forged,” Sittenfeld said.