City Releases 'Gang of Five' Text Messages for Private Court Review

The texts about the controversial firing of Cincinnati City Manager Harry Black are tied up in a lawsuit by conservative activists who say five council Democrats broke open meetings laws

Nov 20, 2018 at 6:28 pm
click to enlarge Cincinnati City Hall - Nick Swartsell
Nick Swartsell
Cincinnati City Hall

The drama continues in the ongoing litigation around texts sent between five Democratic Cincinnati City Council members during the tumult around the exit of then-Cincinnati City Manager Harry Black this spring.

The city turned over some of the controversial texts today to the First District Court of Appeals. The messages will remain under court-ordered seal until it is determined which, if any, are public record.

Earlier this year, conservative activist Mark Miller and his attorney Brian Shrive, both connected to the group Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes, filed a lawsuit seeking texts sent March 1 through March 19 between Council members Tamaya Dennard, Greg Landsman, Chris Seelbach, P.G. Sittenfeld and Wendell Young. The group discussed the impending ouster of then-Cincinnati City Manager Harry Black by Mayor John Cranley, as well as other city business.

Cranley wanted Black fired after Black fired a high-ranking Cincinnati Police official. Cincinnati City Council, however, resisted the proposed settlement worth hundreds of thousands of dollars that Black was offered. Eventually, Black resigned after it became apparent there were enough votes on council to fire him.

Miller and Shrive contend that the texts between the five council members represent a violation of open meetings laws. Hamilton County Common Pleas Court Judge Robert Ruehlman ruled last month that the city must release all texts sent by any of the five council members during the time period in question. The Cincinnati City Solicitor's office appealed that ruling.

Shrive alleged today that city officials revealed in court that some of the messages sent by two council members were not available because one, Young, erased his and because another, Dennard, dropped her phone in a pool.

Some of the texts in question were released in the aftermath of Black's departure. They reveal the five Democrats discussed how they would approach Cranley's attempts to fire Black, as well as chats about other impending city business. The messages at times use somewhat disparaging language about the mayor.

However, not all of the texts were released, leading to the protracted court battle with potentially big political dimensions. Ruehlman last month rejected a request from former City Council candidate Derek Bauman to join the lawsuit in order to seek the release of texts from councilman Christopher Smitherman, who was involved in a text group with all nine council members and Black. Texts from Smitherman, three other council members and Cranley will not be released under Ruehlman’s order. In response to records requests for texts covering the time period around Black’s ouster, Cranley has said that he dropped his phone in a hot tub and could not provide them.

There are some political implications at work here — Smitherman has announced he will run for mayor in 2021 and Sittenfeld is said to be strongly considering a run as well. Cranley and COAST are both allies of Smitherman, while Bauman and his attorney are Sittenfeld supporters. The release of the texts of the five progressive council members to Shrive would give him a potentially powerful political weapon to use in the coming mayoral election. Shrive has not yet said which, if any, of the texts he will make public if he gets them.

Smitherman has decried the attempt to gain his text messages as "evil," blaming the five council members for it. Landsman has alleged that Smitherman threatened him during a council committee meeting. The conservative-leaning independent today called the texts evidence of "corruption."