Both sides claim 'victory' in political fight over park board seat that ended in front of a judge

Posted at 3:57 PM, Jan 23, 2018
and last updated 2018-01-23 19:18:28-05

CINCINNATI -- A nasty political fight over a seat on the Cincinnati Park Board ended Tuesday, when a judge ruled that Dianne Rosenberg can keep her seat -- for now.

“It’s a total victory,” Rosenberg’s attorney, Paul DeMarco, said.

Attorneys didn’t talk about accusations of country club spending or political backstabbing between Rosenberg and Mayor John Cranley during the hearing in front of Hamilton County Court of Common Pleas Judge Charles Kubicki Jr.

Rosenberg accused Cranley of ousting her from her position because of a political vendetta. She had supported his challenger, Yvette Simpson, in the mayoral race, instead of backing him.

Rosenberg filed a lawsuit in December after Cincinnati City Council -- at Cranley’s urging -- voted to replace her on the park board with Cranley ally Jim Goetz.

Paul DeMarco, attorney for Dianne Rosenberg, argues in Hamilton County Court of Common Pleas on Jan. 23, 2018.

But the wording of the city charter -- not political fighting -- was the subject of the hearing.

Attorneys made rather short arguments before Kubicki announced his decision from the bench. He ruled that Rosenberg’s term ends Feb. 1, 2018 -- and not Dec. 31, 2017, as Cranley had argued, or in 2021 as Rosenberg had initially claimed.

He also ruled that Cranley could not appoint Goetz, and Cincinnati City Council could not vote on him in December 2017, because Rosenberg’s term was not officially over, and the newly elected city council should make that decision in 2018.

“It would be a bad precedent to set ... to try and fill a vacancy that didn’t occur until the next succeeding term for city council and for the new term for the mayor,” Kubicki said.

Although the court case may have ended, the political fight has not.

Cranley will put Goetz's appointment on the city council calendar Wednesday, and council will vote on it Jan. 30, said spokeswoman Holly Stutz-Smith.

But it’s uncertain whether Cranely has enough council votes to approve Goetz.

Hamilton County Court of Common Pleas Judge Charles Kubicki ruled that Dianne Rosenberg can keep her park board seat - for now.

“I think the majority of council is on record indicating that Dianne Rosenberg ought to remain in her seat,” DeMarco said.

Since the judge ruled that Rosenberg stays in her seat until a successor has been approved by city council, she could theoretically stay on the park board for years if a majority of council keeps voting down potential replacements.

But the mayor’s office didn’t see it that way.

“Today’s victory brings us one step closer to ensuring that monies given to the Cincinnati Park Board are treated and accounted for like other public dollars," according to a statement from Cranley’s office. "The parks department is a public body under state law and all of its money is public money that must be accounted for publicly and transparently.”

DeMarco took issue with Cranley describing the judge's ruling on Tuesday as a "victory."

"Mayor Cranley is calling today's defeat in court a 'victory'?" DeMarco said. "To paraphrase 'The Princess Bride,' I do not think 'victory' means what Mayor Cranley thinks it means."

All along Cranley has said the dispute with Roseberg stems from how parks endowment money is spent.

“It’s always been about transparency and implementing the reforms that came out of the audit,” Cranley said in an interview last week. “Dianne has treated the endowment money like a private county club account and that has to change.”

In a 2017 audit, state officials recommended the city oversee how the park board spends its endowment funds. For example, the park board has spent endowment money on car allowances and legal fees, which the city opposes.

“I am only going to appoint people who are committed to the changes,” Cranley said. “They don’t believe it’s public money and I do.”

Cranley appointed Goetz, a retired corporate financial officer who also chairs the city’s internal audit committee, to the park board to ensure endowment funds are properly spent on parks, according to city court filings.

But Rosenberg insists the fight is really about a political grudge.

“Ms. Rosenberg is being singled out for removal not because the law and the evidence require it, but because, according to the Mayor’s own words, she committed the unpardonable political sin of supporting the mayor’s opponent,” according to her court filings.

In a court filing last week, attorney Jim Burke, who represents other park board members in another matter, said in a sworn deposition that Cranley told him: “Elections have consequences, Dianne backed Yvette Simpson and she should have offered her resignation after the election … if she really tries to hold onto her position by working through city council it will be a war and I will destroy her in the press.”

But, “I never said that," Cranley said in an interview last week. "This has never been personal.”

He insists he only told Burke he would push for a public debate on the transparency and openness of the park board.

But Rosenberg believes the five-member park board is the best steward of their endowment money. 

"Today’s decision reaffirms that the city must work cooperatively with an independent park board," Rosenberg said in a prepared statement. "We are committed to being good stewards of the parks and take seriously our responsibility to carry out the wishes of private donors who do not want the city or political interests to interfere with the intent of their gifts.”