The big story in Cincinnati politics this week is the hammer that Hamilton County judge Robert Ruhlman dropped on Cincinnati's City Council on Thursday. Five City Council members pled to violations of the state's open meetings law by discussing the fate of City Manager Harry Black via text messages last year, and in the hearing today to have those pleas heard, Judge Ruhlman called on all five to immediately resign from City Council instead.
A Hamilton County judge gave a tongue-lashing Thursday to five Cincinnati City Council members who broke the law by secretly conducting public business via text messages.
Common Pleas Judge Robert Ruehlman told the five they violated the trust of voters and should immediately resign from office.
"You essentially lied to the people of this city," Ruehlman said. "The trust is gone. It's going to take a long time to get that trust back."
The five council members – Wendell Young, P.G. Sittenfeld, Chris Seelbach, Tamaya Dennard and Greg Landsman – all admitted as part of a settlement agreement that they broke Ohio open meetings law by secretly discussing public business in a string of group text messages.
The spectacle of five council members appearing before a judge to acknowledge wrongdoing is unprecedented in modern Cincinnati politics and threatens to unleash more chaos at City Hall, where personal and professional rivalries have interfered with council’s work for more than a year.
None of the five council members spoke in court Thursday, but the judge did plenty of talking. He said their actions betrayed the ideals of those who created a city government that's supposed to serve the public, not elected officials.
"I really believe the five City Council members should resign," Ruehlman said. "No city voter should ever vote for them again."
Outside the courtroom after the hearing, Landsman said he has no plans to step down. "You have to take responsibility for your actions," he said, referring to the texts. "I've said they were a mistake from the beginning."
Sittenfeld said in a statement the group text messages were "an honest mistake" that won't be repeated. But he complained the error has been blown out of proportion by political opponents, including the law firm and the conservative, anti-tax group that have led the charge against the five Democratic council members.
"The important business of the city has been hijacked by politically motivated actions of a local right-wing group and their affiliated law firm, whose goals, put simply, are to cause chaos and enrich themselves," Sittenfeld said.
Seelbach attacked Ruehlman, a Republican, on Twitter, referring to appeals court decisions that went against the judge and describing him as the "most overturned judge in southwest Ohio."
Mark Miller, who filed the lawsuit that brought the text messages to light, said Ruehlman was right to criticize the five council members. "This is very real," Miller said. "How are we going to trust these guys after they purposely did business out of public view?"
One of the five, Young, will be back in court in a few weeks to face a possible contempt of court charge for deleting some of the texts at issue in the case.
Young's lawyer told Ruehlman on Thursday he believes his client deleted the texts before the judge ordered the council members to preserve all of their messages. If that's true, it may shield Young from a contempt of court violation.
And all of this comes from a series of really bad decisions the City Council has made involving Mayor John Cranley. Cranley and the Council have been banging heads for years now, and both of them have made increasingly bad decisions over protecting their turf from the other, including both sides using former City Manager Harry Black as a pawn.
It's getting ridiculous now, and I'm hoping this will finally be the end of this clown show.