Issues 1 and 2 of the May Cincinnati ballot are aimed at targeting city council members charged with federal charges related to their work on the city council.
Vice Mayor Christopher Smitherman introduced Issue 1, and Councilor Betsy Sundermann introduced Issue 2. Both members support both amendments.
WVXU spoke to Smitherman and Sundermann to learn more about the amendments and why Cincinnatians should support them. On Monday, April 19 at 12 noon, Cincinnati Edition moderator Michael Monks, Smitherman and Sundermann will ask additional questions about their amendments.
What inspired the changes?
Both constitutional amendments are in response to three council members who were charged with corruption charges last year – particularly in response to the arrests of Jeff Pastor and PG Sittenfeld.
Pastor is charged with honest service, cable fraud, bribery, attempted extortion by a government official, and money laundering. Sittenfeld is charged with fraud, bribery and attempted extortion by a government official. Both are accused of accepting money in return for positive votes on development projects.
There are currently two ways to suspend a council member:
First, through the Attorney General. Pastor and Sittenfeld agreed to a voluntary suspension of the Attorney General, but if they had not reached an agreement, the suspension process could have taken weeks or months.
Second, through the Hamilton County Probate Court when four citizens file a complaint. The legal process would also be lengthy.
Which topics 1 and 2 share: successor designees
Each amendment contains a provision preventing a council member from changing his or her successor after being charged with charges of serving on the council.
As things stand today, each council member decides which member or members will elect their replacement when they leave office, for example by resigning to take on another position. As a rule, members can change these successors at any time.
Both constitutional amendments state that a council member cannot change his or her successor after the indictment.
Problem 1 Adds a special prosecutor
Smitherman’s amendment deals with one of the two existing ways to suspend a councilor. When citizens file a complaint with the probate court, the city lawyer is hired to prosecute the case.
Since the chief of the city attorney is the city council, Smitherman presents a clear conflict of interest.
“You could have represented us in a case where you are now being asked to take removal measures,” said Smitherman. “Naturally, this conflict of interest arises between the legal department and their clients.”
In question 1, the city’s attorney would instead have to appoint a special prosecutor to try the case against an accused councilor.
Issue 2 offers a third option for suspension
Sundermann says the city needs a third option to suspend a councilor accused of wrongdoing.
“If the current councilors [Pastor and Sittenfeld] Had we not voluntarily agreed to a suspension, we would likely have been able to have one or both of them show up every week, propose laws, and vote on laws. And that’s not good, “said Sundermann.
Issue 2 gives the council the power to internally suspend a member.
If a council member is charged with a state or federal crime related to their duties, this triggers a council hearing. This only happens if the fees are job related. This means that a councilor could be accused of robbing a bank and not necessarily have to initiate this process.
The accused member would have the opportunity to represent his case. Suspension would require seven positive votes, a majority of the nine-member council (the accused member would not be eligible to vote).
If a member is suspended through this process, the council member’s designated successor would elect a temporary replacement.
The suspension would automatically end if the charges were dismissed or the member was acquitted while their term in office has not expired.
If the member is convicted of a crime in connection with his activity on the Council, the suspension is automatically and completely lifted.
Problem 2 requires ethics training
Sundermann’s amendment includes a third provision requiring all councilors to receive ethics training within 60 days of taking office.
Ethics training is currently voluntary and is only offered at the beginning of each regular semester. Sundermann points out that four current councilors took office mid-term – Steve Goodin (who replaced pastor), Liz Keating (who replaced Sittenfeld), Jan-Michele Lemon Kearney (who replaced former councilor Tamaya Dennard, who after her own bribery resigned scandal) and Sundermann himself (in place of Amy Murray, who left to take a job with the Trump administration).
The training would be conducted by the Ohio Ethics Commission. Failure to provide evidence that training is completed within 60 days will not allow a council member to attend or vote on council meetings, or vote on or introduce laws.
What happens when both problems are resolved?
Although they overlap somewhat, the two constitutional amendments do not contradict each other. If both get a positive majority, both will be included in the city charter.
As they each contain a provision on the successor-designate, each with its own language in each amendment, the measure that receives the most votes will provide the language with which this part of the Charter will be amended.
See the full amendment to the Charter in Issue 1 below (Issue 2 follows):
Issue 1 – Cincinnati May 20 … by WVXU News
See the full amendment to the Charter in Issue 2 below:
Issue 2 – Cincinnati May 20 … by WVXU News
A full sample reconciliation is available below:
Hamilton Co. May 2021 Elect … by WVXU News
The “Trust in Local Government: WVXU’s Public Integrity Project” examines Cincinnati politics and the people who shaped them. Read more here. Support for this project comes from the Murray and Agnes Seasongood Good Government Foundation.