Political grudges and 'country club' spending at play in feud over park board seat

CINCINNATI -- The fight over a seat on the Cincinnati Park Board took a nasty turn on Tuesday with an explosive court filing that accuses Mayor John Cranley of ousting Dianne Rosenberg from her position because of a political vendetta.

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. She wants a temporary restraining order to bar the city from replacing her.

A hearing in front of Hamilton County Court of Common Pleas Judge Charles Kubicki Jr. is set for Jan. 23.

In the meantime, both sides have been fighting it out through court documents.

Rosenberg's latest court filing accuses Cranley of ousting her from the park board because she supported Yvette Simpson in the mayoral race last year instead of him.

“Elections have consequences, Dianne backed Yvette Simpson and she should have offered her resignation after the election,” Cranley allegedly told attorney Jim Burke during a conversation in December, according to Burke’s sworn deposition attached to Rosenberg’s latest court filing.

“I never said that. This has never been personal,” said Cranley, who has been trying for years to reform how the park board spends its endowment money.

J. David Rosenberg and Dianne Rosenberg in 2015. Provided photo

Burke’s deposition goes on to say that Cranley told him: “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.”

Cranley denies saying this, and insists he only told Burke he would push for a public debate on the transparency and openness of the park board.

Burke is partner at Keating Muething & Klekamp and represents two other park board members, Susan Castellini and Robert Anning, who are not part of Rosenberg’s lawsuit.

Burke also testified under oath at the deposition last week that Cranley’s office tried to “create evidence” in the case by asking Melissa Autry, Clerk of City Council, to write a letter that Rosenberg’s term expired on Dec. 31, 2017.

At issue is when Rosenberg’s park board term actually expires. She believes that Cranley appointed her to a six-year term when she was tapped to replace Cathy Crain in January 2015.

Cranley and city attorneys argue that Rosenberg was only appointed to fill Crain’s seat on the park board until it expired in 2017, so the city is justified in appointing Goetz to replace her.

Just days after Goetz was appointed to the park board, Rosenberg filed the lawsuit on Dec. 22 against Cranley, Autry, Goetz, City Manager Harry Black, and the five Cincinnati City Council members who voted for her replacement.

The lawsuit reveals a deep, underlying dispute over how the park board spends its endowment money.

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, according to court filings.

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

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, instead of other things, according to court documents filed by the city.

“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.”

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.

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