Did Mallory Waffle on Secret Meetings?

This week’s aborted push by some Cincinnati City Council members to begin the process for allowing closed-door executive sessions in limited circumstances has some officials lodging allegations of betrayal within City Hall and hypocrisy on the part of a local newspaper.

A council faction was prepared to decide this week on placing a charter amendment before voters this fall that, if passed, would have allowed city council to hold executive sessions under the guidelines allowed under Ohio law. Generally, the law allows closed-door meetings to discuss labor union negotiations, personnel matters and pending litigation. But the law states that public notice must be given about such private meetings, and any decisions arising from them must be taken in a public vote.

Council members Jeff Berding and Chris Bortz argued that executive sessions are needed to discuss legal strategy with attorneys when the city is being sued; not allowing them puts the city at a competitive disadvantage, they said. Moreover, they believe council’s annual performance evaluation of the city manager should be conducted behind closed doors to avoid undermining that person’s authority with the city employees that he or she oversees.

Bolstering the pair’s position, leaders of the three local political parties — Democratic, Republican and Charter — wrote a letter to Mayor Mark Mallory stating they supported placing the charter amendment before voters.

After The Cincinnati Enquirer ran an editorial criticizing the proposal, however, Mallory issued a letter stating that he was against proposing the change this year until more public debate had occurred.

“I believe that, before any amendment is placed on the ballot, there should be extensive public input and debate on the issue. … The city of Cincinnati faces many serious and difficult challenges that must be addressed in the coming months,” Mallory wrote. “Our main focus should be addressing the priorities that are important to the citizens of Cincinnati and that will improve the quality of life in our region.”

In spring 2000, the Ohio First District Court of Appeals ruled the city of Cincinnati couldn’t hold private sessions unless the city charter was changed. Any charter change requires voter approval.

Today is the deadline to place issues on the Nov. 7 ballot. With only five of council’s nine members expressing support for the amendment — Berding, Bortz, Laketa Cole, Cecil Thomas and Jim Tarbell — the faction is one vote shy of the six votes needed to overturn a likely mayoral veto.

Mallory’s letter and the editorial angered Berding and Bortz.

Berding said he told Mallory ahead of time about the proposal and wouldn’t have pursued it unless the mayor had previously indicated his support.

“I was certainly acting based on the assumption that it was something the mayor was supportive of,” Berding said Wednesday.

Noting that city officials face many issues that require action, including reducing crime, Berding added, “We have plenty on our plates. We have a lot of serious work in this city. I do think we can walk and chew gum at the same time. But we’ll put this on the back burner for now.”

Bortz said the Enquirer was wrong to editorialize against letting the city hold private sessions when the newspaper has remained silent on the practice also being used by the Hamilton County Commission and dozens of other governmental bodies within the newspaper’s circulation area.

“They’ve overstated the issue,” Bortz said. “It’s an unfair characterization of a useful governmental tool.”

Berding and Bortz promised to revive the debate next year.

— Kevin Osborne

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