CINCINNATI — Cincinnati City Council voted Wednesday not to suspend Councilmember Wendell Young following his April indictment on a tampering with evidence charge related to the 2018 "Gang of Five" scandal.
Councilmember Betsy Sundermann brought the motion to suspend Young after the passage of Issue 2, which allows council to vote on the suspension of another member if that member is indicted. With nine members on the council, seven "yes" votes were needed to suspend a member who had been formally charged with a crime.
Sundermann's motion netted only six. The Republican Sundermann, Democrat David Mann, Democrat Jan-Michele Lemon Kearney, Democrat Chris Seelbach, Democrat Greg Landsman and Republican Liz Keating all voted to suspend Young.
Republican Steve Goodin and independent Christopher Smitherman abstained, killing the motion.
Young himself, a Democrat, attended the meeting via Zoom but could not cast a vote on his own fate.
"How could people not vote for this when they all wanted it on the ballot and the voters passed it by 78%?" Sundermann said later. "I would love to hear the explanation for why people thought it should be on the ballot, but not apply to this specific council member."
"I believe the voters did speak to us very clearly, that they want us to clean up this chamber," Goodin said. "They said they wanted us to have this power. They didn't say we needed to exercise it."
City Council's recent history, which has involved three federal indictments resulting in two suspensions and one resignation, motivated Sundermann to propose Issue 2 ahead of May's primary. She named Young as part of the reason it was necessary, telling WCPO in April that his continued presence at meetings was "a huge problem" and that she did not want a person under indictment to vote on the upcoming city budget.
The “Gang of Five” scandal that sparked the years-delayed indictment revolved around a group of council members — Young, plus fellow Democrats P.G. Sittenfeld, Tamaya Dennard, Landsman and Seelbach — who admitted they had texted and emailed each other about city business. Their actions violated Ohio’s Open Meetings Act, which requires all public meetings be open to public viewing.
Young destroyed some of that private correspondence despite knowing the group was under investigation, according to special prosecutor Patrick Hanley. A grand jury indicted Young on April 15, and he could spend three years in prison if convicted.
Two of his fellow "Gang" members, Sittenfeld and Dennard, have since been arrested on federal corruption charges — so has Councilmember Jeff Pastor, who did not participate in the text messages. All three were accused of soliciting bribes from local developers in exchange for favorable votes on those developers' projects. Dennard resigned; Sittenfeld and Pastor have been suspended. All of this happened before Young's indictment and the passage of Issue 2.
Before the charter amendment created with the passage of Issue 2, an indicted council member could only be suspended through a lengthy court process, which must be requested by Ohio’s attorney general or the public.
Although the council vote failed, the Ohio Supreme Court has appointed three retired judges to a commission that will consider if the court will suspend Young.
If Young resigns or if the commission suspends him, Seelbach would have the power to appoint someone to fill his seat because Seelbach is Young's successor designee. If the court does it, Hamilton County Judge Robert Winkler will appoint a successor.