Bortz’s Call: Charter Violation?
A key belief of the Charter Committee — Cincinnati’s de facto third political party — is that elected officials shouldn’t meddle in daily administrative tasks at City Hall, instead letting the city manager handle the matters as a method to depoliticize some aspects of municipal government.
In fact, the Charterites formed in the early 20th Century to overturn the political machine created by the notorious Boss Cox and passed a charter amendment that created the city manager’s position. Ever since, the Charter Committee has prided itself as a watchdog and an advocate for clean government.
Now one of two Charterites on Cincinnati City Council, Chris Bortz, is being criticized for calling a department head and allegedly telling him to delay signing a contract approved by council that involves an agency that Bortz has questioned in the past.
Although the city’s charter specifically states that council members should direct all dealings with the administration — except for questions — through the city manager, the Charter Committee’s president said Bortz did nothing improper.
“It’s certainly not a violation of the charter to call someone to talk to them,” said Michael Goldman, Charter Committee president. “My understanding is Chris Bortz called to tell him a couple of things that were going to be on the agenda.”
At issue is a Feb. 14 telephone call that Bortz made to Michael Cervay, the city’s director of community development and planning. Bortz discussed a contract that would fund the Cincinnati Human Relations Commission (CHRC) through May. Bortz was part of a council faction that was disturbed by how much CHRC spends on salaries as compared to programs.
The call upset councilmen David Crowley, John Cranley and Cecil Thomas, all Democrats and CHRC backers, who described it as interfering in the legislative process.
“For any council member to approach a director to suggest to that person they delay or slow up moving on a contract violates the whole council/manager form of government,” Crowley said. “It seems to me to be a major interference.”
Bortz counters that he merely wanted to inform Cervay that city council planned on offering further direction about how some of CHRC’s funding should be allocated.
“It’s a tempest in a teacup,” Bortz said about the dispute. “I informed Michael Cervay that we would be considering policy that would involve police programs and violence reduction.”
In testimony before city council’s Rules Committee last week, however, Cervay gave a slightly different account.
“There was a request made to me not to execute the contract and I attempted to accommodate that request,” Cervay said.
Bortz insists no order was given.
“It wasn’t a command. I didn’t tell him what to do,” he said. “He was very grateful to get the direction. The actual person in the department responsible for the contract was on jury duty, and it would be delayed anyway.”
Council’s dispute evokes old memories among some officials. In past years, former Councilman Phil Heimlich was criticized for his efforts at scrutinizing CHRC and the African-American Chamber of Commerce, and former Councilman Dwight Tillery once was accused of using his influence to bypass the city manager to get a questionable development contract approved.
Goldman said he’s talked personally with Bortz and Cervay and is confident no charter violation occurred. Comparisons to past disputes are misguided, he added.
“The difference is between someone deciding to delay a contract based on information received in a phone call and being told to do something in a phone call,” Goldman said. “I think Chris Bortz is a much different person than either Phil Heimlich or Dwight Tillery.”
Still, Goldman concedes the call could be misconstrued as exerting undue influence.
“It depends on the tone of the conversation and what was said,” Goldman said. “Could it happen? Definitely, it could happen.”
Thomas, a retired cop who also used to be the CHRC’s executive director, was incensed by the call. He complained that African-American organizations and officials tend to receive more scrutiny and harsher treatment by council. Thomas is black, as is CHRC’s new director, Cheryl Meadows.
“We have the head of another African-American organization being dragged down here and grilled,” Thomas said.
Bortz said race wasn’t a factor in making the call and is angry that Thomas insinuated a racial overtone into the dispute.
“I’m astonished. I’ve never been so offended in my life. Talk about a lack of respect between council members,” Bortz said. “In my opinion, that’s pretty extreme. If the positions were reversed and I said the same thing about him, I would be ridden out of town. I have still not yet heard an apology. He hasn’t said a word to me since.”
— Kevin Osborne
UPDATE: Goldman called CityBeat to clarify one of his earlier comments. He didn’t personally talk to Cervay about the matter, but said that, based on his conversations, it’s his belief neither Bortz nor Cervay believe a charter violation occurred.