Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters has convened a grand jury to determine whether any of five Democratic Cincinnati City Council members broke laws in relation to text messages they sent during the tumult around the exit of then-Cincinnati City Manager Harry Black this spring.
Hamilton County Sheriffs deputies last night attempted to deliver the subpoenas to the five council members. One, Wendell Young, met with prosecutors today.
The city turned over some of the controversial texts to the First District Court of Appeals on Nov. 20. 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 Jan. 1 through April 24 from Council members Dennard, Greg Landsman, Chris Seelbach, P.G. Sittenfeld and Young to each other or any other council member, and messages between any of the five and Black between March 1 and April 21.
Shrive alleged Nov. 20 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. Mayor John Cranley gave a similar response to a records request for his messages from the period in question, telling news outlets he could not furnish the texts because he had dropped his phone in a hot tub.
The texts released so far reveal the group discussed the impending ouster of Black 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.
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 FC Cincinnati’s West End stadium and 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.
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.
Council members were initially represented by a private law firm hired by the city when Smitherman was involved since the conservative-leaning independent was on the opposite side of the issue. After Ruehlman refused to include Smitherman in the case, the city solicitor's office began representing the remaining five council members.