CINCINNATI — The city of Cincinnati went through one of its toughest periods in government history two years ago when it saw a third of the city council arrested on federal corruption charges.
What do you want to know
- The City of Cincinnati has a new Office of Ethics and Good Government
- It grew out of an era of scandal at City Hall that saw three city council members arrested for federal corruption.
- The office will focus on development issues, but it will also work on other government operations
- Job-specific training will be in place for all city employees
Federal prosecutors have accused City Hall of having a “culture of corruption.” Public confidence has been shaken.
Over the past two years and two administrations, the City of Cincinnati has worked to help reshape that image. And one of the ways to do that is to creation of the Office of Ethics and Good Governance.
The office’s job is to educate and train elected officials and all city staff on ethics-related issues, ranging from conflicts of interest to campaign contribution issues. It also investigates alleged cases of irregularities submitted through a new helpline.
The three-person office opened in January. It is headed by Christopher Liu, a longtime attorney in the city’s legal department.
“It’s something we should have had a long time ago,” said council member Greg Landsman, who proposed creating the new office. “After all the chaos and madness of the past two years, we had to do everything in our power to restore public confidence.”
Landsman is the only current City Council member or elected to City Hall who was in office when federal agents were arrested — Democrat Tamaya Dennard, Republican Jeff Pastor and Democrat and former mayor favorite PG Sittenfeld.
All of the charges related to taking bribes from developers seeking to do business with the city.
Dennard pleaded guilty in November 2020 to federal bribery charges and was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison for accepting $15,000 in exchange for a favorable vote on a development project.
Pastor and Sittenfeld’s cases are still pending in the court system.
“It was a black eye for the city,” said Larry Eiser, a longtime West Side resident who has worked with the City of Cincinnati over the years to help transform the business district into the most great area of town, Westwood.
As a member of the Westwood Community Redevelopment Corporation (WestCURC), Eiser worked with the city to help redevelop a former fire station into a popular restaurant. He also played a key role in the neighborhood’s development of a Designated Outdoor Refreshment Area, or DORA.
In recent years, the city has made many “incremental” developments in neighborhoods that were in desperate need of investment, Eiser said, such as Over-the-Rhine, College Hill and Westwood.
When Eiser saw the headlines about the arrests, he was “shocked and saddened.” Not only because he had a “high opinion” of some of those arrested, but also because he thought the scandals might cast a “dark cloud” over some of the city’s development efforts.
“Obviously it wasn’t everyone,” Eiser said. He thinks it’s unfair to paint everyone with a wide brush. Most city employees are “good people trying to work hard for the city,” he said. “But this situation was really disappointing and really embarrassing for Cincinnati.”
Working to restore public trust
It was important that the city take drastic action to restore public confidence that the government was working fairly on behalf of citizens.
“We want people to look at City Hall and the changes and say, ‘OK, I trust this group; I trust this institution,” Landsman said. “That’s what matters most.”
Landsman called the creation of the Office of Ethics and Good Government the most important of the reforms, because it established “real leadership and infrastructure” to ensure that whatever the City Council passes is on the upside.
As head of the department, Liu works alongside two paralegals, but they also have support from the Office of Administrative Hearings, which handles things like rulings on city parking tickets and various city codes, including building and zoning codes, which are vital to the development process.
Another important reform was the creation of a Expert Group on Economic Development Reform in December 2020.
The council asked the panel — made up of lawyers, business people and community members — to assess the city’s current development process and recommend ways to keep it as free from influence as possible. Politics.
The chair, Ann Marie Tracey, is a retired Hamilton County Common Pleas Judge and former Assistant United States Attorney for the Southern District of Ohio. She once served as chair of the Ohio Ethics Commission.
The panel came up with a number of ideas that the Office of Ethics and Good Governance will implement and follow up on.
One was the creation of a “City Business List,” a publicly available document that shows the “financially interested persons” associated with development projects making their way through the legislative process at City Hall.
The database will include developers seeking financial grants or loans worth $100,000 or more per year, the purchase or lease of municipal property worth $200,000 or more, tax incentives or zoning changes. The aim is to promote transparency and help avoid conflicts of interest. Placing all of this information on an online web portal will let the public know which development deals are before the city council and who has a financial stake in the outcome of that vote, Liu said.
Anyone on this list cannot donate to the political campaigns of elected municipal officials while their motion is before the municipal council. Likewise, the mayor and members of the city council will not be able to solicit donations from anyone on this list.
Office staff have been working on the portal since its inception in January, Liu said. They are actively working to make it operational.
To promote awareness of the city’s corporate listing disclosure process, the Office of Ethics and Good Governance will host a pair of hour-long public information sessions and workshops at the City Hall. city.
The dates are:
Friday, May 20 from 1:30 p.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Monday, May 23 from 11 a.m. to noon
Liu plans to record an additional training session and post it on the office’s website.
“We strive to balance the need for transparency without creating additional bureaucracy that makes it difficult for people to navigate the system,” he added. “It’s really important that we implement all of this in a thoughtful way.”
Liu’s team also oversees an “Ethics, Fraud, Waste and Abuse” hotline — both a phone number and a website — for residents or city employees to “safely report and anonymously” any concerns they may have. They will also investigate any complaints.
Any alleged violations of campaign finance rules would go to the Cincinnati Election Commission. The agency would review them to determine if they have merit and then fine or penalize them, Liu said. More serious offenses would go to the Ohio Ethics Commission or possibly law enforcement.
Not just politicians
The work of the Ethics and Good Governance Office will not only focus on elected officials. Although these are probably the most high-profile cases, ethical issues can arise at any level of government.
Ohio’s ethics laws apply to all city employees, whether they are appointed or hired into a city service. And it’s not just those working in development either – any city employee with outward-facing responsibilities, whether they work in utilities, police or buildings and inspections.
Liu and his team will provide Ohio ethics law training to all offices and departments across the city.
One of the biggest challenges is avoiding potential conflicts of interest. These aren’t illegal, Liu said, but it’s how an employee handles them when they arise.
For example, a city employee cannot accept a gift from someone who appreciates the work they do and they cannot accept additional compensation for the work they do while employed at the city. They cannot go back and offer someone additional services based on what they have learned on the job.
“People who depend on municipal services need to trust and believe in everyone, every person in municipal government,” Landsman said. The candidate for the United States House of Representatives (OH-1) believes that all taxpayers should “believe that their city government treats everyone the same”.
“They need to be able to trust them, and they need to know that they have been trained well and that they will be held accountable if they break the rules,” he added. “It’s both obvious and really important that this training and these standards include everyone who represents city government.”
Ethics training is not new to City Council. In years past, all City of Cincinnati employees would gather in large groups to watch an approximately hour-long interactive presentation from the Ohio Ethics Commission. But the training was quite broad and not specifically focused on what people were actually working on, Liu said.
The new training covers many different scenarios. Some of them are based on advisory opinions from the Ohio Ethics Commission, where someone ran into this problem. Others come from comments or questions received from city employees.
Liu described the job-specific training to “meet people where they are” and focus specifically on the most common pitfalls they might encounter in their actual job.
“The passion around creating this office and these reforms was to make sure – long after we (this mayor and the members of the city council) are gone – that all the things that need to happen are going to be done and in the right way. way,” Landman said.
Eiser believes the Office of Ethics and Good Government and other reforms will allay some of these residents’ concerns. The new tools and resources may also help clear up some of what he called the “grey area” — things that haven’t been explicitly defined as good or bad, but which may raise the public’s collective eyebrows.
“I don’t believe everyone was doing (anything illegal) at the time, but I appreciate that the city took steps to put in place improved checks and balances to minimize the chances of something happen in the future,” he said.