What the Latest Council Texts Tell Us About Power In (and Outside of) City Hall

Sets of recently-released messages sent among Cincinnati officials and former mayor Dwight Tillery reveal the complicated power dynamics that have roiled City Hall.

Jun 14, 2019 at 10:14 am
click to enlarge Cincinnati City Hall - Nick Swartsell
Nick Swartsell
Cincinnati City Hall

More than a year after the intense battle inside Cincinnati City Hall kicked off by moves to fire then-City Manager Harry Black by Mayor John Cranley, that epic struggle is still shaking loose new information about the city’s complicated political workings.

The latest revelations came earlier this week when the city’s law department released two new batches of emails and other messages; one involving the mayor, councilmembers and Black, and another involving several Democratic councilmembers and influential former Cincinnati mayor and councilmember Dwight Tillery, a fellow Democrat. 

The messages illustrate once again the pitched fight over Black's job, the intense interest Tillery has shown in the decisions made by the city’s elected officials, the deep antipathy between the former mayor and Cincinnati’s current mayor — and potential political fault lines in the race to become the next one.

The Battle Over Black

In his missives, Tillery strongly urges the councilmembers — mainly Wendell Young, P.G. Sittenfeld and Chris Seelbach in the messages released so far by the city — to stand by Black. Tillery warns of civil unrest and anger in the black community over Black’s treatment, which he likens to Cranley's unceremonious and controversial dismissal of Cincinnati Police Chief Jeffrey Blackwell in 2015. He also expressed concerns that Cincinnati Police Chief Eliot Isaac would be the next to get the axe if Black was removed.

Blackwell, Tillery and Black are all African American. Cranley has at times received heated criticism — including from the three men and some community groups — for the ways in which he has treated black leaders. 

"Met with mayor at 2:30," Black wrote to Sittenfeld March 9, 2018. "Gave ultimatum that I resign or he will initiate a smear campaign against me." 

According to Tillery and the five council members, Cranley was acting beyond the powers accorded to the mayor by the city charter in his drive to remove Black.

Cranley, meanwhile, pointed to multiple allegations that Black used intimidation against city employees and had a drinking problem. 

“What staggers me is that you know Harry is abusing and retaliating against city workers," Cranley wrote to Sittenfeld in April, "and you are putting your feelings about me ahead of helping them. And politics ahead of what’s right for the city."

Councilmembers only occasionally respond to Tillery’s missives about Black, but they do so respectfully. Sometimes, they seem to take his advice. Other times, they do not.

“I’m hopeful we can stick together,” Councilmember Chris Seelbach wrote of a group of five councilmembers to Tillery March 26 last year as Cranley worked to get enough votes on council to fire Black. “Landsman is wavering. So anything you can do to have people reach out to him would be helpful. Cranley has entire bus (business) community calling him.”

Tillery responds that he’s working on that.

“Yes, I’ve text him and told him it won’t be good if he throws the manager under the bus,” Tillery writes. “There will be a march and rally against Cranley.”

“When is march?” Seelbach responds. “Cranley is making everything about Landsman. You should all post to every African American group you can to contact Landsman.”

Tillery sends similar texts to Sittenfeld and Young throughout the dramatic struggle over Black’s tenure as city manager. That battle, which appeared to begin when Black fired Assistant Cincinnati Police Chief Dave Bailey for alleged insubordination March 8, 2018, culminated in Black resigning on April 21 just before five members of council, including swing vote Landsman, voted to fire him.

In between, five Democratic councilmembers — Tamaya Dennard, Landsman, Seelbach, Sittenfeld and Young — worked together trying to keep Black from getting fired or from getting a larger severance than the $274,000 his contract stipulated. Black stated he wanted to stay on the job, but wavered after Cranley suggested a deal worth $393,000 plus a year and a half of health benefits paid by the city.

“Update (while acknowledging it ain’t over till the fat lady sings),” Sittenfeld wrote Tillery March 27. “The five council members have affirmed that we’re sticking together and we will be voting down the big buyout for Harry tomorrow.”

“Wow what a great thing,” Tillery responds.

“Yes, it’s taken a helluva lot of effort, and I appreciate what you’ve done to yield this outcome,” Sittenfeld writes back.

Black eventually walked away with the contractually-stipulated package but later won a settlement from the city for another $370,000.

The six-week ordeal took a number of twists and turns, including the joint release from the five councilmembers of a statement supporting Black. That triggered a lawsuit by conservative activist Mark Miller and his attorney Brian Shrive over violations of Ohio’s open meetings laws.

Eventually, Miller and Shrive prevailed in court, winning $90,000 in legal fees and a $1,000 fine against the councilmembers.

As a result of the lawsuit, the city released text messages between the involved parties. Another lawsuit brought by media outlets triggered the release of texts between the mayor, the city manager and other council members.

Race and the Coming Mayoral Race

The texts involving Tillery show a deep divide between him and the mayor, even though the two were formerly close allies. In the messages, Tillery calls Cranley “racist,” “crazy,” “the local Donald Trump” and other things.

“Cranley is about to start a race riot in this city,” he wrote to Sittenfeld March 28. “We need to have an emergency meeting to discuss this because people are ready to go to the street.”

But not all of the messages are about Cranley. Some, specifically to Sittenfeld, are about the race to become the next mayor of Cincinnati — a contest likely to be between Sittenfeld, Vice Mayor Christopher Smitherman and whatever other contenders may enter the ring.

In one series of messages, Tillery takes Sittenfeld to task for his role in brokering a deal between the city and FC Cincinnati allowing its coming Major League Soccer stadium in the West End to move forward. The stadium hasn’t been popular with many in the historically black neighborhood, or in some other corners of Cincinnati’s various black communities.

“Black people feel very passionate about that community and it will hurt you in the mayoral race,” Tillery wrote to Sittenfeld in May 2018, just before council approved a community benefits agreement between the team and a few last-minute representatives of the neighborhood. “I must tell you that if you have a black person who voted against the FC deal, he or she will have a very, very strong leg in the black community against you.”

The lengthy message goes on to say that Smitherman, who supported the stadium, wouldn’t necessarily be that person, but that council member Dennard, Sittenfeld’s former staffer, could emerge as a challenger in 2021. Dennard, who voted against a publicly-funded infrastructure package for the stadium, has made no indication she is considering running.

“I don’t think you get the gravity of the damage that will be done in putting that soccer stadium down in the last historical neighborhood for black people,” Tillery writes. “You won’t be able to overcome this. As your friend and confidant, please don’t make this political mistake.”

Sittenfeld doesn’t respond to Tillery’s warnings. But on April 13, Tillery writes again to let Sittenfeld know he has an op-ed coming soon in the Cincinnati Enquirer.

“I greatly respect your difference of opinion,” Sittenfeld writes back. “…I believe in the good this proposal can do for the community. I also understand that if this vote, or any other vote, causes me not to have a future in public service, I can live with that so long as I know I did what I believe to be the right thing.”

Health Gap Funding Fights

After Tillery served a single two-year term as mayor between 1991 and 1993, he remained active and influential in city politics.

Before the two were adversaries, Tillery served as the co-chair for Cranley’s first mayoral election campaign in 2013. He  made contributions to some current council members in the last council election, giving Seelbach and Young $1,100 each in March 2017, and Dennard the same amount in September that year.

Until last year, he also ran the Center for Closing the Health Gap, a nonprofit he founded in 2004 to address health disparities suffered by African Americans.

The Health Gap says it has touched more than 360,000 people through its Do Right! Campaigns and has hosted annual health expos providing more than 100,000 attendees with more than 30,000 free health screenings.

But there have been questions about its efficacy, and about the money the city has given it.

The nonprofit got increasing funding in the city’s budget under Cranley  — at least until the mayor and Tillery had a falling out over Cranley’s pick for the head of the Cincinnati Health Department.

The row between the two got deeper after Tillery backed Cranley’s mayoral challenger, then-councilwoman Yvette Simpson.

Then two media reports hit at roughly the same time at the beginning of 2017 probing spending practices at the Health Gap.  

Those reports raised questions about the organization's spending on a program that provided fresh fruit to 11 convenience stores — some of which didn’t have produce in them when reporters went looking — and $3,600 invoiced to the city by the Health Gap for events by a Tillery-run political organizing group called the Black Agenda.

The Health Gap later returned the money after the city said it represented improper spending on political events. A city audit later found less-than-ideal billing practices at the Health Gap but laid part of the blame for those lapses at the city's feet.

Tillery left his leadership role at the Health Gap last year.

Meanwhile, since 2017, funding for the Health Gap has been a recurring budget fight, with the city manager and mayor cutting the group’s funding and council Democrats adding it back in.

Cranley has said that the Health Gap should go through the same process overseen by the United Way of Greater Cincinnati that other nonprofits apply to in order to get city funding, though under his tenure, the center's funding via the city went from $200,000 a year to $1 million a year.

The city manager sought last year to zero out funding for the Health Gap in the city budget, but a veto-proof majority of council put $700,000 back in as part of a larger spending package. That decision came after roughly 100 supporters of the Health Gap flooded council chambers, leading to a testy meeting between the mayor and council.

This year, the city manager and mayor again zeroed out the organization’s budget. Six members of council have signed on to a budget ordinance that would give the organization $750,000 next year.

At times in his texts with councilmembers last year, Tillery brought up the city funding for the Center for Closing the Health Gap.

“I will not be bullied by John, who continues to try to find ways in which to stop our funding,” Tillery wrote in a group message to the five council Democrats on March 26, 2018. “John continues to break the law by violating the charter. I am letting you know I will take whatever steps I need to take to protect my reputation and the center’s.”