By Dan Yount

The Cincinnati Herald

P.G. Sittenfeld, Chris Seelbach, Wendell Young, Tamaya Dennard, and Greg Landsman. Photos provided

A Hamilton County judge told five members of the Cincinnati City Council in an unprecedented court hearing Thursday morning (March 8) that they have lost the public’s trust and should resign after discussing city business via texting last year in violation of the Ohio Open Meetings Act.

With all five of the self-called “Gang of Five’’ members on the council in attendance in the courtroom to admit they were involved in the texting, Common Pleas Judge Robert Ruehlman told them, “You essentially lied to the people of this city. The trust is gone. It’s going to take a long time to get that trust back.”

The council members involved are P.G. Sittenfeld, Chris Seelbach, Wendell Young, Tamaya Dennard and Greg Landsman. The bulk of the text messages that have been released were about the effort made by Mayor John Cranley to fire City Manager Harry Black, especially the amount of severance pay that would be afforded Black. Black eventually resigned, ending the dispute.

The judge signed the $101,000 settlement agreement over their texting case, an amount that will be paid by the city.

Under the agreement, the council members must turn over additional messages pertaining to the texting violations. Those messages were released Thursday afternoon by Casey Weldon, the city’s director of communications.

Judge Ruehlman also set an April 1 hearing to consider a possible contempt of court matter with Councilman Wendell Young, who admitted to destroying some of the messages in regard to the texting after the judge ordered the council members not to do that.

Dennard has said she accidentally destroyed her texts when her phone fell into a pool, court records show.

The city of Cincinnati will issue a total payment to the anti-tax activist who sued – Mark Miller of Coalition Opposed to Additional Taxes and Spending (COAST) – in the amount of $101,000 “as a civil forfeiture, statutory damages and payment of reasonable attorneys’ fees,” city records show. The payment includes $90,000 to cover Miller’s court costs, including representation by the Finney Law Firm; $10,000 in statutory forfeiture for Councilman Wendell Young destroying his text messages by deleting them from his phone; and $1,000 to Miller

The city spent $71,963 last year in outside lawyers for the five council members.

Sittenfeld released a statement immediately following the hearing, saying, “First, having a quorum participating on one thread was an honest mistake, for which I’ve apologized, and which won’t happen again. In the midst of the difficult situation our city was in last spring, councilmembers were trying to prevent a political spectacle. Still, that conversation absolutely should have happened in council chambers. The response to what was an honest mistake, however, has been for people who don’t have the city’s best interests at heart to work overtime to create chaos and carry out a political agenda.

“The second thing I’ll reiterate is that the content of my own texts are more of the same of what’s previously been released. There are things I certainly would have said more artfully, but I’m a human being, and the voters have always known they were electing a real person, a flesh-and-blood human being.

“Recently 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.’’

Landsman has also apologized and said he would not do this sort of thing again.

“I am proud of the work that my team and I have undertaken since first being elected in 2011 … to make positive change and get things done for the people of our community, and that’s exactly what I will continue to do.’

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