Sparing the Public's Tender Sensibilities

The slung mud that attends every election season started congealing during the March 9 meeting of Cincinnati City Council, nearly eight months before voters go to the polls. First Councilman David

Mar 16, 2005 at 2:06 pm
Jymi Bolden

Can you hear me now? Councilman Jim Tarbell says closed meetings have a purpose.

The slung mud that attends every election season started congealing during the March 9 meeting of Cincinnati City Council, nearly eight months before voters go to the polls. First Councilman David Pepper, a mayoral candidate, sharply criticized Councilman Christopher Smitherman's characterization of a council vote on city funding on HIV and AIDS. In a guest column for The Cincinnati Herald, Smitherman had faulted council for cutting funding. The rest of council quickly chose sides; Smitherman's two allies, Councilwoman Laketa Cole and Vice Mayor Alicia Reece, pointed out that neither Pepper nor Councilman John Cranley have shied from sharing their own strong opinions of council's moves.

Then Councilman Jim Tarbell and Smitherman, both members of the Charter Committee, introduced a motion to ask voters to allow council to restore executive sessions, which are closed to the public. City council used to hold executive sessions until a few years ago, when The Cincinnati Enquirer sued, according to Tarbell. He called it a "time-honored tradition that got caught in a void somewhere a few years ago when a media outlet decided that they didn't have the access they wanted. While I appreciate their desires for whatever reason, I also know that ours are much more important."

He went on to say that the city's important desires were, in part, "to spare our constituents the frustration of some of the things they don't know anything about."

Mayor Charlie Luken said executive session is undemocratic.

"I have participated in them in a time when executive sessions were allowed," he said. "I thought that they were used as a vehicle to hide from the public the public's business. Democracy is not always pretty, but it is nonetheless the public's business and I would hope that council would reject this approach."

Luken's strident opposition to Tarbell's proposal widened a recent rift that began with the mayor's veto of an Over-the-Rhine housing program. Tarbell considered the veto retribution for his support of raises for middle managers, but he was unable to garner the six votes needed to override it. An infuriated Tarbell told Luken that executive session was the place he'd really let him have it.

"This is the reason we should have executive session, because I'm going to say some things right now that I'm not comfortable saying out loud and in public," Tarbell said.

"Mr. Tarbell, I'd rather hear them right here," Luken replied.

But Tarbell demurred. "I don't — I think we should all be gentlemen and gentle ladies," he said.

Tarbell and Smitherman argue that the city's ability to negotiate contracts, such as the one with the Fraternal Order of Police that just went into binding arbitration, is compromised by the public nature of council discussions. Likewise, reviewing the performance of an employee such as City Manager Valerie Lemmie or discussing lawsuits against the city is problematic without executive session, they said.

Luken and Cranley called executive session "secret meetings." Cranley in particular reveled in the irony that the councilmen from the Charter Committee, which overturned the corrupt city government of Boss Cox in the 1920s, now seek to reinstate executive session.

"The party of good government is now proposing Boss Cox closed-door meetings," Cranley said.

But Tarbell wasn't taking it.

"There is not a Charterite in this city or in the history of this city that wouldn't proudly defend this tradition," he shot back.

Council and Other Gummy, Fiberless Substances
Each council meeting includes a segment called "by-leaves," during which members can raise any subject they choose. Smitherman used his by-leave to talk about a mentally disabled woman who died in jail March 3, a week after being repeatedly subject to Tasers by Cincinnati Police (see All the News That Fits, issue of March 9-15).

"Why did our officers show up to a group home where someone is mentally retarded and deploy their Tasers?" Smitherman asked. "Why did she end up in a justice center and not in a group home? That whole custody chain should be reviewed. But what we do instead is send out a report saying there's no problem, someone threw Tupperware at police officers and some time later they died."

He called on Pepper, chair of the Law and Public Safety Committee, to hold a hearing and criticized fellow council members' silence.

"These are the tough issues that city council needs to deal with as we sit here quietly pandering to the West Side of town...," he said.

At that point Luken cut Smitherman off, asking him to re-characterize his argument into something other than a personal attack on Cranley, after which Smitherman, Luken and Cranley traded barbs a while longer.

At the end of the meeting, Councilman Sam Malone uncharacteristically used the full six minutes of his by-leave and then some, telling council to play nice.

"If we don't become tighter than overcooked rice," the city will continue to lose population and revenue, he said. "I don't know what it's going to take for council to grow up."