CINCINNATI — City Hall has a problem.
“This is as serious of an issue as there is. And a lot of it has to do with trust and how the public perceives us,” said City Councilman Greg Landsman.
The "trust issue" comes after seeing three Cincinnati City Council members -- Tamaya Dennard, Jeff Pastor and P. G. Sittenfeld -- accused in federal bribery investigations this year. Each case involved "pay-to-play" support for development projects in the city.
“Council shouldn’t be negotiating development deals,” Landsman said.
One effort Landsman is proposing is an update to the city's 2017 developer project scorecard. These are measurements developers should meet before being awarded a tax abatement or TIF (tax increment financing) dollars. Landsman introduced a draft of the scorecard during Monday's Budget and Finance Committee meeting.
“An updated scorecard allows us to play a very positive role without negotiating or getting involved in that part of development deals,” Landsman said.
The scorecard covers multiple areas: job creation, affordable housing, community engagement, anti-displacement, diversity and inclusion efforts and sustainability. The revised process was developed with the city administration over the last year; however, the recent events involving council members using development projects to bargain for votes makes the changes more relevant.
Landsman said the scorecard details are from a study of best practices in city development around the country. He also said he expects the revised scorecard to go through a process to get input from other council members before it is presented for a full council vote in early January or February 2021.
"(It's) all aimed at increasing investments in the city but doing it in a way that lifts up and protects our residents and businesses,” he said.
"If I were an out-of-town developer looking at the news of the last couple of months, I would be very, very wary of trying to spend money in Cincinnati or engaging in any kind of economic development discussions," said newly appointed City Councilman Steve Goodin during the Budget and Finance meeting. "That's the real tragedy here. We're talking about jobs lost, livelihoods affected."
Landsman agreed that the federal charges against former sitting city council members could cause developers to take their projects elsewhere.
“We have a lot of work to do to ensure that we can be a city where folks want to invest here, (and) they trust the process,” Landsman said.
The current scorecard outlines a point system that is assigned to meeting certain criteria. The higher the points, the longer the tax abatement or higher percentage of abatement. Landsman said there needs to be strict guidelines to ensure City Council members don't cross the boundaries related to development projects, and the roles of the mayor and council should be clearly defined.
“There should be mechanisms to ensure that if somebody comes anywhere near that line, not even crosses it, but comes near it, folks know,” he added.
Landsman's proposal comes as the city council is also close to deciding to allocate $100,000 for an Economic Development Reform Panel to study how the city has handled negotiations with private developers and to recommend "best practices and ways to improve the development process and better insulate it from political influence and cronyism," according to the ordinance proposed by Councilman David Mann. A council vote is expected on Wednesday, December 16.
Meanwhile, Landsman has additional ideas that could help to regain trust. He said he is calling for city campaign finance laws to be updated to include a community notification when someone who does business with the city also contributes to the political campaign of a council member.
He also said Council should have the ability to take action against council members.
“Council should be in position to say that somebody needs to be suspended or removed. We need that ability,” Landsman added. That kind of change would ultimately require an amendment to the city charter.
He said it will take a lot of changes and a new culture to get people to trust City Council again.