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Ohio Ethics Commission: 'Gang of Five' prohibited from voting on matters related to case

Posted at 11:23 AM, May 07, 2019
and last updated 2019-05-07 11:23:42-04

CINCINNATI — An opinion issued by the Ohio Ethics Commission will create a “constitutional crisis” at Cincinnati City Hall, according to Vice Mayor Christopher Smitherman who tweeted the commission’s findings Tuesday.

Smitherman said the ruling was requested by the Office of the City Solicitor after he sponsored a motion calling for the “Gang of Five” council members “to reimburse the taxpayers” for the city’s entire $176,000 legal bill for representing them in a lawsuit.

The issue at hand: Can (or should) the “Gang of Five,” which forms a 5-4 majority in council, vote on a motion calling for them to collectively pay thousands of dollars back to taxpayers?

The OEC said ‘no,’ in an April 19 letter to the solicitor's chief counsel Roshani de Soyza Hardin.

“The private financial interests of the five council members would be definitely and directly affected by either the passage or non-passage of the vice mayor’s motion and its resulting ordinance,” the OEC said in the letter to Hardin.

The five council members agreed to a settlement over the text messaging scandal in March.

P.G. Sittenfeld, Greg Landsman, Tamaya Dennard, Chris Seelbach and Wendell Young admitted to violating Ohio’s Open Meeting Act by conducting public business in private text messages and emails with each other.

The city is paying $101,000 to plaintiff Mark Miller, treasurer of the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST), plus $75,000 in lawyer fees.

The five council members each agreed to pay $200 as their share of a $1,000 fine the city incurred after they admitted to conducting public business in private.

The text messages also included disparaging comments about Smitherman and his then-dying wife Pamela.

Smitherman released the motion in March. It reads:

“WE MOVE that the Councilmembers be responsible for paying their $176,000.00 legal bill and penalties after admitting to violating Ohio Open Meeting Law on March 7, 2019.”

All motions require a majority vote of council, according to city council rules. The motion would seem to have no chance of passing, based on the opinion of the OEC.

“Accordingly, the five council members are prohibited from voting, participating in discussions or deliberations, or otherwise using their authority or influence, formally or informally,” the OEC wrote, “in matters regarding the motion, a resulting ordinance, and any related procedural motions that arise under the city council’s parliamentary process that affect either the motion’s passage, tabling, or non-passage.”

Miller contended that the five agreed through text messages on a united position regarding the firing of then City Manager Harry Black without meeting in public.

READ MORE: Wendell Young cleared of contempt over deleted 'Gang of 5' texts