CINCINNATI -- Two Cincinnati City Council members – not an outside investigator – will lead the probe into alleged misconduct by City Manager Harry Black.
City council unanimously passed the motion on Wednesday, despite getting sidetracked on the issue of whether taxpayers should pay for Black's private attorney.
Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld brokered the compromise with a city council that has been fractured over Mayor John Cranley's very public feud with Black.
Cranley has been pushing Black to leave his post, citing a growing list of accusations that the city manager mistreated and retaliated against those who crossed him, made offensive late-night phone calls and asked city employees to join him at a strip club during a city-funded trip to Denver in 2016.
Black has downplayed the allegations, but did offer an apology to the mayor and anyone else he may have offended during a March 28 council meeting.
Council seemed to be in a stalemate about how to proceed, arguing about the expense of a special counsel, the legality of it, and if the public airing of grievances would turn into a “public lynching,” or a “kangaroo court.”
But the compromise Sittenfeld put forward seems to have quieted those concerns - at least in part.
Two well-respected Democratic council members – David Mann and Tamaya Dennard – will lead the hearings into Black’s conduct.
During the private hearings, only Mann and Dennard will be allowed to ask questions of any witness who steps forward to complain about Black.
The only others present will be a court reporter, Black’s lawyer and the lawyers or union representatives of each witness.
As part of the motion, both Dennard and Mann agree to keep their opinions private and the identity of witnesses secret, until their probe is finished.
Once testimony is finished, a court reporter will transcribe it and Black will have a chance to review it and present his own case or witnesses.
“Transcripts, including videotapes, then shall be forwarded to the clerk of council for distribution to the mayor, members of council and the media,” the motion states. “Conclusions about the implications of these transcripts and what actions, if any, are appropriate there from rest in the hands of the members of council.”
Holly Stutz-Smith, a spokesman for Cranley, said in a written statement that the mayor is glad council is "taking claims of mistreatment seriously and giving employees a chance to come forward."
"Under the leadership of council members Mann and Dennard this process will empower employees to share their experiences without fear of retaliation.The mayor believes that this process will result in truth and transparency for council and the public," she wrote.
In a written statement, Black called it "an unfortunate and regrettable situation for all involved."
"While I am the first to admit, and have, that there is always room for improvement, I have no concerns about how I have conducted myself as a professional and am proud of the results we achieved as a city government," he said.
"Disappointingly, as this has now morphed into a quasi-judicial exercise including sworn, video-taped testimony, I have requested to be provided the requisite outside legal representation as it relates to my role as city manager," Black said.
Just when it seemed city council had finally reached a long-awaited compromise on the volatile situation, council members began arguing Wednesday afternoon if taxpayers should pay for Black's private attorney.
"Fairness doesn’t require your legal fees to be paid. No one is claiming Mr. Black can’t afford an attorney," Mann said. "Why is the public treasury being raided to pay for his attorney?”
But several members of council - Sittenfeld, Dennard, Chris Seelbach and Wendell Young believe the city should pay for Black's attorney. Because City Solicitor Paula Boggs Muething may be a witness against Black, they believe her office cannot properly defend him.
“Given the city solicitor is going to be a witness in these ‘fact gatherings,’ it only seems appropriate that a special counsel be brought in at the expense of the city," Seelbach said.
Sittenfeld supported paying for Black's attorney - but not giving the city manager a blank check.
Mann and Dennard had hoped to begin hearing from city employees on Friday. But the dispute over legal fees has caused a delay until April 16, Mann said. This will give the solicitor's office time to analyze if it can hire a private attorney for Black, how much it will cost, and if enough council members will support using taxpayer funds to pay the legal bill.
So far the majority of city council has opposed the mayor’s efforts to get rid of Black.
The city manager agreed to leave with 18 months' pay, or about $423,000, in a deal he made with Cranley. But a majority of council refused it last week.
Then on March 29, council agreed to a lower payout - eight months' of Black’s salary, or about $170,000, if he resigns. But several members who voted for the proposal also said they want Black to stay.
And last week Black said he wants to stay in his job, if he has the support of council.