Cincinnati solicitor: Nope, city council can't hire outside lawyer to investigate Harry Black

Cincinnati solicitor: Nope, city council can't hire outside lawyer to investigate Harry Black
Posted at 9:50 PM, Mar 20, 2018
and last updated 2018-03-21 10:08:04-04

CINCINNATI -- If Cincinnati City Council members want to hire an investigator to check out the city manager's behavior, their top lawyer said they'd have little control over the process -- and likely can't even do it in the first place.

A majority of council, five Democrats, said they want to appoint an outside attorney after Mayor John Cranley accused City Manager Harry Black of retaliation, abuse and other misconduct.  They called for a "ceasefire" while a neutral party checked out the accusations, which Black has denied.

But City Solicitor Paula Boggs Muething told council members Tuesday her office would be in charge of any outside attorney because that's what the city charter requires.

The solicitor's office fought with the Cincinnati Park Board when that agency hired its own outside attorney in a fight over endowment funds. Like this case, Boggs Muething argued the charter only allows her office to represent the city. That includes decisions about hiring outside counsel.

An ordinance on council's agenda for Wednesday lets her office spend up to $50,000 to do just that: Hire outside counsel to check out the city's sexual harassment policies and procedures.

Other council members, who support an 18-month severance package for Black, said they fear contracting with a special attorney could be more costly. Black would get at least $423,767 under the exit deal four members now support. If he were fired, Black would get less than half that -- eight months' pay.

"In the long run, (the deal) will save the city money," Councilwoman Amy Murray said.

Still, the severance package faces an uncertain fate during Wednesday's council meeting. Adding to the stalemate: Cranley has not introduced legislation to fire Black. Even if he did, he likely would not have the votes to pass it.

Boggs Muething, in particular, was caught in the crossfire when Cranley threatened to go to war last week: the city manager is her boss, and she is a longtime friend of Cranley's. The mayor said Black made her uncomfortable when he talked about visiting a topless bar during a taxpayer-funded trip to Denver two years ago.

In the last five months, Black has been named in five federal lawsuits filed by six city employees accusing him of retaliation. In contrast, the city's last city manager, Milton Dohoney, did not have a single federal lawsuit filed against him by a city employee alleging poor treatment, abuse of power of retaliation from 2008 to 2013. The only lawsuits filed by employees were protesting the city's retirement benefits system.

Murray and Vice Mayor Christopher Smitherman back the deal, which Councilman Jeff Pastor brokered over the weekend. Democrat David Mann also has signaled his support.

Council members Tamaya Dennard, Greg Landsman, Chris Seelbach, P.G. Sittenfeld and Wendell Young oppose it.

Read the full memo in which Boggs Muething summarizes her interpretation of the charter below: 

Mayor Opinion - City Council Authority to Contract Outside Counsel by WCPO Web Team on Scribd