Council votes down city manager severance again; reduced offer on the table

During a tense council meeting that also saw controversy around FC Cincinnati's stadium and police reform efforts, council voted down a deal between Mayor John Cranley and City Manager Harry Black

click to enlarge Cincinnati City Hall
Cincinnati City Hall

Cincinnati City Council voted down a $423,000 severance package for City Manager Harry Black today, again prolonging a nail-biting saga that began several weeks ago with controversy within the Cincinnati Police Department.

Council seems poised to try again tomorrow — but it's unclear that a new effort to send Black on his way will be successful.

Mayor John Cranley asked Black to resign March 9 after the city manager fired CPD assistant chief David Bailey with a $400,000 severance package. During that controversy, Black said that a "rogue element" in the department was working to take down Chief Eliot Isaac. A memo from Isaac accuses Bailey of working to subvert the city's Collaborative Agreement police reform efforts, insubordination and ordering unauthorized internal investigations. Bailey, and the Fraternal Order of Police, denied those allegations.

Black refused to leave, though he later came to an agreement with Cranley for a larger severance package. However, Cincinnati City Council must approve his dismissal — something a five-member group of Democrats refused to do again at today's council meeting, citing the cost of the severance and the circumstances under which Black is being asked to depart.

Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld, one of the five holdouts, today said he will introduce legislation tomorrow that would award Black eight months of severance pay and benefits worth about $174,000. That could be enough to sway other holdouts. Cranley himself indicated he would introduce a counter-proposal: 12 months of severance pay for Black. That deal doesn't seem to have the necessary votes.

The outlook of even Sittenfeld's deal seems cloudy. At the end of the tumultuous council meeting, which also saw public comments against an FCC stadium in the West End and others decrying race issues on the police force, Black himself spoke — and again indicated he would like to stay in his job.

"I am human and therefore imperfect," Black said. "it gives us something to work toward each day. I believe my life experiences have been what they have been to prepare me for this moment."

Black apologized to Cranley for offending him. He also apologized if he offended anyone else, perhaps an oblique reference to multiple complaints and lawsuits against the city alleging Black engaged in retaliatory behavior toward employees.

""I would very much like to continue in this capacity as long as this body wishes for me to do so," he said at the end of his remarks, which also contained allusions to his rough childhood growing up in Baltimore.

Councilman Chris Seelbach said during the meeting that he still wants an independent review of the city manager.

"I'm not going to fire anyone without evidence," he said. "I'm not going to pay someone not to do their job when we have a $20 million budget deficit."

Councilman Wendell Young also underscored that his potential vote for a reduced severance package didn't mean he wants Black to leave. Young expressed support for the city manager.

Complicating the already intense situation, Young announced earlier this week that he had reported to the U.S. Attorney's office a phone call Cranley made seeking his vote for Black's severance package. During that call, Young says Cranley asked him "what he wanted" for his vote. Young claims he was advised by the Ohio Ethics Commission that the phone call could constitute a bribery attempt. Cranley has called that assertion a "silly political stunt." Young did not specify any monetary or other deal Cranley proposed, and Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters has said that based on the short statement Young released, the mayor's actions didn't appear to be illegal.

Cranley said he would support Sittenfeld's deal. During council, the mayor lashed out at what he called "political games" played by Black supporters, who he said are the same people opposing FC Cincnnati's stadium in the West End. Cranley used the moment to announce he would introduce a resolution supporting a stadium in the neighborhood. It's unclear if that will have enough votes to pass council.

"We have a lot to decide about who we are as a city," he said. "Are we going to hold people hostage to political fights or are we going to support progress and growth?"

In remarks to reporters following the meeting, Cranley again said that he would call forward roughly a dozen employees who say they've been intimidated by Black. Chris Jenkins, an attorney for city employee union CODE, also spoke, saying "serious" allegations against Black have been shared with council members and will be made public soon. Jenkins blasted Black's apologies as false, alluding to a lawsuit filed by 911 call center operator Elizabeth Christenson. She says Black angrily lashed out at her during a December 2016 meeting about problems at the call center. Later, Christenson alleges, Black gave her an "uncomfortable" hug.

"He knows he offended her," he said. "He knows he offended others."

Council will convene in a special session tomorrow to consider Sittenfeld and Cranley's legislation on Black's severance.

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