County attorney's office will advise on court clerk's handling of scolded employee

Commissioner Portune asks for legal opinion on Donald Robinson's transfer into a new, $70,000-a-year "safety director" job.

click to enlarge County attorney's office will advise on court clerk's handling of scolded employee
Photo: Hailey Bollinger

The reprimand and reassignment of a high-ranking clerk of courts official into a newly created $70,000-a-year job is triggering a legal opinion from the Hamilton County Prosecuting Attorney's office.

The opinion was requested by County Commissioner Todd Portune at a commission meeting Wednesday morning. Portune expressed concern about the transfer of former Chief Deputy Bailiff Donald Robinson into a new job as "safety services director," as well as Robinson's fitness for the position. The reassignment occurred last month in the Hamilton County Clerk of Courts office, led by Tracy Winkler.

"It raises the specter of an ongoing need to look into this to see exactly what is going on," Portune said during the meeting. "We're trying to cut costs, not expand budget."

Robinson was reprimanded Oct. 11 for having sent an email — during work hours of Thursday, Sept. 1 — pressuring 40 subordinates to plant yard signs and wear Winkler T-shirts in public in support of Winkler's re-election campaign. He was not fined or suspended, and his reprimand notice states that he did not violate office policy. He was forced to apologize to his staff.

Two weeks later, on Oct. 24, Robinson returned from a vacation and was reassigned into Winkler's "Public Safety Division," which puts him in charge of safety and security programs, workplace safety regulatory compliance and the office's evacuation plan. His salary stayed unchanged at $70,035 a year. Whether or not the position was publicly advertised is not known. Neither Winkler nor her top aides has responded to phone calls, emails and a personal visit by CityBeat.

Portune was further interested in the Robinson transfer because it puts him in charge of a parking ticket program operated under a contract involving the Board of Commissioners.

"That necessarily implicates the interest of the board as to whether this person is the correct person to oversee the management of that program," Portune said. "It is of great interest to the board ... so there's a lot I think still to be looked at, and I hope you'll join me in asking the prosecutor's office to continue to delve into this and report back to us."

Michael Friedmann represented the prosecutor's office at the meeting. He said the office would weigh in on the matter. He did not say how long that would take.

"What you've raised today I think changes a bit what the original request is, but we'll work with the administration if there's additional things that need to be looked into," Friedmann said.

Although the kerfuffle centers on the conduct, discipline and reassignment of a county employee, politics lurk at every turn. Portune is a re-election-seeking Democrat on a governing body with a Republican majority. One of those Republicans, Dennis Deters, is himself running for election to the board. And the prosecuting attorney, Joe Deters — Dennis Deters' brother — is a Republican and supporter of Winkler, another Republican.

Democrats are exploiting the Robinson matter, which was first reported by CityBeat on Oct. 10. Winkler's Democrat opponent, Procter & Gamble attorney Aftab Pureval, said Winkler must be held accountable for her actions. Winkler herself sent an email Sept. 1 soliciting campaign help from her employees. She has not publicly acknowledged doing so.

"She has created a pervasive culture of coercion, a culture of pay-to-play politics," Pureval said this morning. "And now she is forcing the taxpayers to fund a newly created position so she can keep her political cronies happy."

Robinson's compensation record of the past four years, obtained from the Hamilton County Auditor's office by Cincinnati attorney Tim Mara and provided to CityBeat, shows that Robinson has received three pay raises in 2016. On Jan. 1, he received a 1.5 percent merit raise to $65,972. Four months later he received a 4.6 percent merit raise to $69,000. On June 30, his salary was raised another 1.5 percent — "per resolution" — to $70,035.

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