CINCINNATI -- Cincinnati City Council members discussed whether City Manager Harry Black needed counseling and implied Mayor John Cranley was a liar in a series of text messages released Wednesday.
The text messages, which council members P.G. Sittenfeld, Greg Landsman, Tamaya Dennard, Wendell Young and Chris Seelbach believed would stay private, were released as part of a lawsuit by the conservative group Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes.
COAST believes the five council members held secret, illegal meetings when they sent round-robin emails and text messages prior to the release of two public statements in March detailing their reaction to Cranley’s request that Black resign.
When asked directly if the majority members regularly text or call to discuss city business, Councilman Wendell Young didn't have an answer.
"I really don't have an answer for that," Young said. "I don't know how many people talk to each other via text message on a regular basis. I just don't know."
These texts offer a rare glimpse into the private, and possibly illegal, conversations and thoughts of city officials on one of the most controversial and dramatic events to rock City Hall in years.
Cranley asked the city manager to resign 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 the five other members who are named in the lawsuit.
The texts detail how the five council members crafted their response during the political crisis from March 16 to 18, but they also reveal how they feel about Black, Cranley and their new power as a majority on city council.
“Team, I knew there was one thing I meant to bring up that I forgot to on the call. Four of us at a time need to have a conversation with Harry about things he needs to do to improve,” Sittenfeld wrote. “I’ve overtly told him I believe he needs to seek some sort of counseling. But he needs to hear it collectively from us, and to frankly understand that his job depends on correcting certain things."
Young suggested that conversation should be held later, and not in such a difficult time.
“Not now please. I think he would view this as a softening of support,” Young wrote. “May I suggest we reserve that conversation for after we get through this process?”
Sittenfeld then said, “Wendell, I’m OK waiting if the others agree. HOWEVER, it’s a conversation that must be had - sooner rather than later. Harry struggles with some things and needs to know we support him, but also bring certain expectations. I’ll defer to the group on timing.”
Young continues to defend Black, "For me there is the recognition that Harry is under an enormous amount of pressure. I worry that he would view the conversation as us piling on. The timing isn't good."
Sittenfeld's text messages are unclear about what sort of counseling he was suggesting for Black.
In a statement Sittenfeld said, "There are no sentiments in these texts that I haven't expressed publicly. And bluntly, everyone has much more urgent and important things to focus on, first and foremost, reforming our emergency response system."
In a statement, Cranley said, "The citizens and city workforce deserve better than being managed by somebody that according to city council, has 'struggles' that require 'counseling,'" Cranley wrote. "Given the stakes of properly working city services, Council cannot hold the manager to a standard lower than a typical city employee."
Seelbach and Black declined to comment on the text messages.
Councilwoman Tamaya Dennard said the council members were "just trying to govern and make decisions" in their text and phone call conversation.
Landsman said in a statement, "Texting like that was clearly a mistake, and I feel very badly. It won't happen again."
WCPO also reached out to Young for comment.
The texts also reveal some council members' disdain for the mayor and his efforts to line up the five votes he needed to oust Black.
“Just got a call from Harry's lawyer and then from Harry regarding their being told by John that I am the fifth vote on a separation package for Harry. I haven't spoken to that little sucker!” Young wrote. “He just flat out lied to [H]arry and his lawyer.”
In a later message Dennard said, “Divide and conquer is his thing … He tried to do that twice to me this week.”
Young also suggested that Cranley was dishonest, in a later text message.
"Don’t forget that he will lie in a heartbeat," Young wrote.
Additional text messages from these council members may be released in the coming weeks if COAST attorney Brian Shrive is successful in his lawsuit. The city provided texts exchanged between the group of five council members because that constitutes a quorum, according to the city solicitor's office, but not individual texts between one or two of them.
The city does not believe the individual text messages are public records, but Shrive believes they are.
.@CityofCincy releases some text messages from illegal secret meetings among @PGSittenfeld @ChrisSeelbach @tamayaforcincy @GregLandsman and @wendellyoung. They continue to refuse to release the remainder. We will pursue under #SunshineLaw #OH @BrianShrive https://t.co/9DtLXbAZvr
— Finney Law Firm, LLC (@FinneyLawFirm) April 18, 2018
"This morning the City of Cincinnati released a collection of text messages exchanged between the cabal of rogue council members that made up a series of illegal meetings regarding the question of whether and how to terminate the city manager," Shrive wrote in a statement posted on his law firm’s website.
“While the City has yet to produce all of the responsive records, this production demonstrates the need for our lawsuit and injunction to force compliance with the Open Meetings Act. Unfortunately, because the city continues to withhold additional records, our client will be forced to bring another suit against the city and the rogue members to force compliance with the Public Records Act.”