By City Councilman Charlie Winburn
Chair of the Budget and Finance Committee
Once again, the city of Cincinnati is at a crossroads where we must decide between full transparency and accountability or continue to face uncertainty and scandal at City Hall.
At the beginning of this year, I called for the city to establish an independent office of inspector general with the goal of rooting out waste, corruption, abuse, and impropriety, while also protecting the innocent subjects of these investigations until conclusions can be made. I am now calling on Mayor Cranley, City Council, and the County Commissioners to create a joint office of inspector general to ensure accountability at the two largest government entities in Hamilton County. The City of Philadelphia is a prime example of the effectiveness of an inspector general at the local level.
Last week a lawsuit was filed against the City, the city manager, and the assistant city manager that included very serious allegations of impropriety in management, contracting, and procurement. Instead of letting the media and the jury of public opinion make a rushed judgement on the alarming allegations against the city manager, an office of inspector general could sort through these details and claims and complete an investigation without jumping to conclusions and hurting innocent people. Cincinnatians deserve to know whether their government is serving the taxpayers and not its own personal interests, but it does everyone a disservice when we lavish ourselves in the gutter that is wild speculation and irresponsible accusations that so often happens in the media. This is what leads to fake news.
This is where an office of inspector general provides immense value to both government and the public. We as public officials owe the taxpaying public the maximum amount of accountability and transparency. With an independent office of inspector general, we provide that accountability and transparency to taxpayers without lending credence to baseless claims.
An independent office of inspector general would have investigative duties related to contract compliance, fraud, waste and corruption. This includes subpoena power investigating violations of the City’s Charter, ordinances, departmental policy and even third party vendors/contractors, including anyone who receives funding from the City and the County. All investigations would be kept confidential, including the subjects and the identities of individuals who provide information in connection with an investigation.
The media would rather have everyone reading every eye-popping, juicy headline that they can come up with, regardless of whether it’s true or completely fake.
Earlier this year an investigation was initiated into one of my staff based on nothing but a few boxes full of trash and redundant paperwork that she was taking home to sort through. Also known as “boxgate,” this incident was thoroughly written about in the media before anyone realized that it was much ado about nothing. In my opinion, I believe that the city administration abused their power, violated my staff’s free speech, violated her due process, and interfered with and undermined our Council Office. Again, an independent office of inspector general could have sorted this out without my staff being tormented by these very public, very false accusations of illegal activity.
Additional scrutiny has been placed on other issues in Cincinnati such as suggestions of contract steering and egregious waste at MSD, accusing public officials, a former mayor, a former city manager and other citizens and minority businesses of wrongdoing without any clear facts or evidence. Or take for instance the recent coverage of a development deal with a prominent donor to Mayor Cranley, where the media has suggested alleged favoritism and special treatment around the MLK corridor project. Both are situations where an independent inspector general could find the truth and prevent any public rush to judgment.
There are several other scandals that have occurred in the city that could have been investigated by an inspector general. A former City councilmember was accused of buying property on the streetcar route and casting votes on the streetcar’s future. Also, take the accusations against Keep Cincinnati Beautiful in fraudulently billing the City for work not done. There were also accusations that the Parks Board improperly used master service agreements to construct Smale Park. The Parks Board was also accused of funneling foundation money into the campaign to raise property taxes in Hamilton County. Finally, take the accusations that elected officials improperly assisted a property owner in buying a property in Bond Hill for $350,000.
These instances beg these questions: Are the mayor, city manager and Council serving the people in an effective, transparent and accountable way? Do we have the correct mechanisms in place to ensure that you are getting the best government for your dollar?
Further, an independent inspector general would not only serve to identify, correct, and potentially prosecute behavior such as waste, fraud, and abuse, but would prevent the names of innocent public officials and citizens from being tarnished by overeager, overzealous journalists who would rather count clicks than deliver the news to the people.
Any politicians or detractors who insist that we don’t have the money to do this are invested in the status quo. They are selling you a lie to protect them and/or their well-connected friends and hide their wrongdoing. Someone even told me they didn’t want this kind of oversight, accountability and transparency. There are countless examples of local and state governments that have saved money through inspector general offices by eliminating waste and abuse that far surpasses the cost of running the office. There is tremendous value for the City in establishing an office of inspector general.
In every form of government, the public it serves deserves its own advocate and watchdog. Cincinnatians and residents of Hamilton County deserve a trustworthy advocate who can give peace and assurance that their tax dollars are being watched and scrutinized at all times, when and where no one else is looking. An independent inspector general’s office can help to bring an end to the chaos and unnecessary scandals at City Hall.