CINCINNATI — Scandal, social unrest and a pandemic: 2020 will go down as one of the most challenging years to date, at least according to a few Cincinnati City Council members.
"This is unlike any year any of us have gone through, obviously," said City Hall veteran David Mann.
Federal corruption charges, the coronavirus pandemic and a nationwide push for police reform all led to forced change and reflection among Cincinnati's community leaders and elected officials.
The city is also in the midst of a budget crisis, one that Councilwoman Betsy Sundermann called "the biggest budget deficit in history."
Sundermann was one of four new faces to take a seat at the dais this year, replacing Councilwoman Amy Murray after she resigned to assume a position in the Trump administration in the spring.
The other three -- Jan Michele Kearney, Steve Goodin and Liz Keating -- all joined City Council after federal agents charged three sitting members of the council with taking bribes for votes, among other charges.
"One-third of us have been indicted," Mann said.
Federal corruption cases
Three out of the nine City Council members faced federal corruption charges this year.
Agents arrested Tamaya Dennard on Feb. 25 on federal bribery charges; she resigned from office a few weeks later. She was accused of accepting $15,000 for her votes on a development deal at The Banks and later pleaded guilty to honest services wire fraud. On Nov. 24, U.S. District Court Judge Susan Dlott sentenced Dennard to 18 months in prison, a term she will begin in March.
Members of Council appointed Kearney as her replacement.
Nearly nine months later, federal agents arrested Councilman Jeff Pastor and charged him with honest services wire fraud, attempted extortion and bribery. He's accused of taking $55,000 in bribes for his votes on development projects throughout the city. Pastor accepted a voluntary suspension, pending the results of his trial, and Hamilton County Probate Court Judge Ralph Winkler appointed Goodin as his replacement.
A week after Pastor's arrest, agents arrested Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld on similar charges to Pastor. He is accused of accepting donations for his mayoral campaign in exchange for his vote on Council. While he has maintained his innocence and has asked that his charges be dismissed, he did agree to a voluntary suspension. Winkler appointed Keating to fill his seat while his trial takes place.
Both Pastor and Sittenfeld will continue to collect salary and benefits while voluntarily suspended.
COVID-19 at City Hall
As in most cities across the U.S., the COVID-19 pandemic hit City Hall hard.
Because of lost tax revenue amid various economic and industrial restrictions and shutdowns, City Council and the city administration were left facing an $80 million budget deficit for fiscal year 2021. As a result, 1,700 city employees were placed on temporary leave; more than 600 of those furloughed were full-time workers, while roughly 1,000 worked part time.
City Hall closed its doors to the public during the beginning of the pandemic and then again in November for several weeks to add additional safety measures, including air purifiers and plastic glass barriers. Masks and temperature checks now are required to enter the building.
Social unrest and calls for reform
Following the May death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, protests erupted in the streets of cities all across the country, including here in Cincinnati. Those demonstrations lasted for weeks, with protesters marching through the streets to the Hamilton County Courthouse, Cincinnati Police Department headquarters and City Hall.
Most protests remained peaceful, but in the early morning hours of May 30, some people began smashing windows and storefronts in Over-the-Rhine, and police said rocks and bottles were thrown at officers. This prompted the deployment of pepper balls to disperse the crowd and led to 11 arrests.
As a response, Mayor John Cranley initiated a curfew. In the days following, Cincinnati police arrested roughly 350 people and charged them with breaking the curfew in order to protest.
Protesters demanded reform within the CPD, with many using the slogan, "Defund the police." The calls for reform led to several hours-long public budget hearings with speakers demanding change. Mann -- who chairs the City Council Budget and Finance Committee -- abruptly ended one of those meetings after the crowd booed a police supporter who was speaking.
Did anything get done?
With all the challenges, closures of City Hall and turnover on Council, did city leaders actually accomplish much work this year?
Cranley thinks so.
"I believe when we look back on 2020, and I think because the winter will bleed into 2021, and COVID will bleed into 2021, the things we have done over, say, an 18-month period in the beginning of COVID...will be as pivotal of a change of the city as the time coming out of 2001," Cranley said, referring to the aftermath of the CPD killing of Timothy Thomas and the subsequent Collaborative Agreement.
The Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation -- better known as 3CDC -- also formed that year.
The mayor pointed to a few big-ticket items.
He said the quick action by City Council in the spring to allow for restaurants to expand onto certain city streets for additional outdoor seating during the pandemic was instrumental in supporting local businesses. Earlier this month, Cranley announced a plan to make those changes permanent and expand them, authorizing the installation of permanent parklets and curb bump-outs, as well as the closure of a handful of streets in Over-the-Rhine and Pendleton.
Cranley said he believes this will transform the city and make it more pedestrian-friendly.
He also pointed to a recent extension of the city's contract with the police union, which reforms how officers are disciplined: It abolished the practice of peer review, which allowed a peer officer to review a fellow officer's discipline, which often led to disciplinary action being overturned. The contract also extended record expungement eligibility from five to seven years and increased the number of arbitrators from one to three in cases needing arbitration.
The contract extension also allowed for wage increases over the next three years: a 5% increase in the first year, 4% the next, and 3% after that.
As for the city's infrastructure, Cranley said he is hopeful the passage of Issue 7 will bring big things. Hamilton County voters approved the sales tax increase to fund expansion of Cincinnati Metro bus service and road and bridge improvements throughout the county, including potential funding for the aging Western Hills Viaduct.
"These are really big things to put the city in a position to come back faster than other cities that I think are just treading water at this time," Cranley said.
For others on City Council, some of the far-reaching accomplishments are even simpler.
Despite the impacts of the pandemic, for instance, Sundermann said basic services never suffered.
"Basic services are what's most important to citizens, and we've been helping people fix their traffic lights and fix their potholes and get their garbage picked up," she said. "That's the kind of stuff that most people really care about."
She also noted the city's work in allocating federal CARES Act dollars to local businesses, schools and the health department.
For David Mann, the administration was able to work through a difficult budget year to ensure police and fire services never faltered.
"Thanks to a lot of help from a lot of sources, including federal and state governments, we have not had the impact on governmental operations that I feared that we would," he said. "There were points where we weren't sure we'd have any money in the till at this point. I think, given where we are in this society, we got through in much better shape than I would have expected when we started."
Looking forward to 2021
Mann, Sundermann and Cranley all agree the challenges of 2020 aren't going anywhere any time soon, including the shadow of two federal corruption cases moving through the criminal justice system.
That will be the big focus in the early months of the new year.
"It has to be a big issue next year, the corruption," said Sundermann. "We have to get through some type of charter amendment, some kind of consensus to get something on the ballot."
Sundermann and her colleague, Councilman Greg Landsman, both introduced about a half-dozen motions and ordinances during Council's final meeting of 2020 to address the issue. Those range from efforts to examine how the city negotiates development deals to charter amendments that would give the city the power to suspend an indicted council member. Those items will move through committee meetings in January before returning to the full council for consideration.
"(Those) proposed charter amendments will take care of some of the nuisances that have been troubling," Mann said.
With those efforts in motion, each agree that City Hall is ready to close the book on 2020.
"I'm so excited for 2020 to be over. I really love this job and can't wait to keep doing it," said Sundermann. "But we could get a lot more done for the city without all these giant obstacles."
Mann agreed: "I won't be sorry at all to see 2020 end. I hope 2021 is better for all of us," he said. "The citizens of Cincinnati are very resilient, despite all that we've faced. I think there's a spirit of optimism this season."
As for the mayor, who will begin his last year in office in January, he's hopeful that the efforts of 2020 have set up the city for a better 2021.
"I am glad we are closing 2020. It was a really rough year for a lot of people who suffered, both health-wise and financially. So I'm hoping for a healthier and wealthier 2021," said Cranley.