Cincinnati voters overwhelmingly approved two constitutional amendments related to city council corruption. Topics 1 and 2 each received more than 75% approval in the primary elections.
“It looks like everyone is fed up with the corruption in town hall,” said councilor Betsy Sundermann, who presented Issue 2. “This will give us the tools we need to suspend or remove corrupt councilors.”
The Sundermann amendment gives the council the power to suspend from service a member charged with criminal offenses relating to his activity on the council. It also requires all council members to complete ethics training within 60 days of taking office.
In Issue 1, introduced by Vice Mayor Christopher Smitherman, a special prosecutor will investigate if a member is charged rather than the city attorney pursuing the case.
Both changes prevent an accused member from changing their successor, who is another person on the council who will elect their replacement when they leave office.
The changes were introduced in response to three council members charged with corruption charges last year – more specifically, in response to the arrests of Jeff Pastor and PG Sittenfeld.
Pastor and Sittenfeld are still on the council receiving paychecks but agreed to a voluntary suspension by the Ohio Attorney General.
Councilor Wendell Young is the latest indictment. Last month, a special attorney accused Young of tampering with records related to the 2018 Gang of Five SMS case.
Sundermann has asked Young to resign. WVXU asked if it intended to use the new authority to request a suspension for Young.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I think hold on, we’ll see what happens.”
Although they overlap somewhat, the two charter amendments do not contradict each other; since both were voted positively by the majority, both are included in the city charter.
As they each contain a provision on the successor proxies, with each amendment containing its own language, the measure that received the most votes will provide the language for amending that part of the Articles of Association.
Issue 2 received 25,197 “yes” votes, slightly more than the 24,994 positive votes for issue 1.
What Issues 1 and 2 share: Successor Designees
Each amendment contains a provision that prevents a councilor from changing their successor after they are charged with charges related to their work on the council.
As things stand at present, each council member decides which member or members will elect his successor if he or she vacates the office, for example by resigning in order to take on another position. As a rule, members can change these proxies at any time.
Both constitutional amendments state that a council member cannot change their successor after they have been charged.
Issue 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 attorney is tasked with prosecuting the case.
Since the chief of the city attorney is the city council, this represents a clear conflict of interest, according to Smitherman.
“You could have represented us in a case where you are now being asked to take removal action,” said Smitherman. “This naturally creates this conflict of interest between the legal department and their clients.”
Issue 1 would require that the city attorney instead appoint a special prosecutor to take the case against each accused councilor.
Issue 2 offers a third suspension option
Sundermann says the city needs a third option to suspend a city council member accused of misconduct.
“If the current councilors [Pastor and Sittenfeld] If someone hadn’t voluntarily agreed to a suspension, we would likely have been in a situation where one or both of us would show up every week proposing laws and voting on laws. And that’s not good, ”said Sundermann.
Issue 2 gives the council the power to internally suspend a member.
If a councilor is charged with a state or federal crime related to his or her duties, it triggers a council hearing. This only happens if the fees are job-related; This means that a councilor could be charged with bank robbery and not necessarily trigger this process.
The accused member would have the opportunity to represent his case. Suspension would require seven positive votes, a super majority of the nine-member council (the accused member would not be eligible to vote).
If a member is suspended through this procedure, a temporary replacement will be elected by that council member’s successor proxy.
The suspension would automatically end if the charges were dismissed or the member was acquitted while their term in office has not ended.
If the member is convicted of a crime related to his activity on the council, the suspension will automatically result in a complete removal.
Issue 2 requires ethics training
Sundermann’s amendment contains a third provision that all council members must be trained in ethics within 60 days of taking office.
Currently, ethics training is voluntary and is only offered at the beginning of each regular semester. Sundermann points out that four current council members 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 came after her own bribery resigned) scandal) and Sundermann himself (replacing Amy Murray, who went to take a job with the Trump administration).
The training would be conducted by the Ohio Ethics Commission. Failure to provide evidence within 60 days that training is complete will not allow a council member to attend or attend council meetings, vote on laws, or enact laws.
The Trust In Local Government: WVXU’s Public Integrity Project examines Cincinnati politics and the people who shaped them. Read more here. This project is supported by the Murray and Agnes Seasongood Good Government Foundation.