11 August 2014

The Supreme Court of Ohio will decide whether Columbus citizens’ basic constitutional rights, in place since before World War I, will survive.

Citizen’s initiatives, the favorite tool of the Progressive Era to defeat robber barons and political bosses, are being arbitrarily rejected by the one-party Democratic machine in Columbus.

The Columbus Coalition for Responsive Government filed a “Verified Petition for Writ of Mandamus” on Wednesday, August 6 with the Ohio Supreme Court. The Coalition is suing to have their initiative signatures counted concerning their “Columbus Fair Campaign Code.”

The initiative calls for public financing of elections for Columbus City Council and Mayor.

The current city charter only requires 4,478 valid signatures to get an initiative on the ballot. The Coalition submitted petitions 16,205 signatures. But Columbus City Clerk Andrea Blevins, on the advice of City Attorney Richard Pfeiffer, refused to verify the signatures as per the usual procedures.

Blevins asserted that she wrongfully accepted the petitions and thus rendered them null and void. She offered no explanation for not accepting the Coalitions petitions and thus killing the initiative.

The lawsuit contends that Blevins has “unclean hands” for failing to advise the Coalition that “the certified pre-circulation petition copy had been filed in the ‘wrong office.’”

The Coalition argues that as a public servant, Blevins had a “legal obligation to advise” the Coalition of their error and thus, “avoid depriving the residents of Columbus of their constitutional right to initiate law in Ohio.”

The Coalition maintains that Blevins’ actions “improperly restricts a fundamental right retained by the people.”

The Coalition is asking the Ohio Supreme Court to “mandate” or order Blevins to do her job by forwarding the petitions to the Columbus City Council for consideration as required by the city charter.

The Columbus Dispatch noted that: “It appears to be the first time that the city has used such a technicality to reject a citizen-initiative.”

In a bizarre explanation, City Attorney Pfeiffer told the Dispatch that “election laws require ‘strict compliance’ to ensure that voters are not misled.” Pfeiffer does not explain how letting citizen vote on an initiative would in any way mislead them.

Pfeiffer readily admits that the city charter is confusing and yet his solution is not to allow people to vote on the initiative but to suppress the initiative and keep it off the ballot.

The petition that Pfeiffer refuses to let Columbus citizens vote on would provide matching funds to mayoral candidates that limit their spending to half a million dollars, and to Columbus City Council candidates that limit their spending to $100,000.00. Under the Coalition’s proposal, the City would set aside $300,000.00 of casino tax revenue and divide between among candidates who voluntarily limit their spending.

Pfeiffer supported a quarter of a billion dollars in casino tax money going to four of the wealthiest families in Columbus and Nationwide Insurance Company to bail out their investments in the Columbus Blue Jackets and Nationwide Arena. Despite five votes not to put public money into hockey team, Pfeiffer has pave the way legally for tax money to flow into the pockets of the rich.

The Coalition had collected signatures at the end of 2013 and submitted petitions to the City only to be rejected at the Franklin County Board of Elections.

At the February 3, 2014 hearing before the Franklin County Board of Elections, City Auditor Hugh Dorrian uttered the following words as the public official who is supposed to get the petitions: “Our policy basically is to accept whatever petitions are given to us. We typically give a receipt to the person or persons giving us the petitions. We time stamp them being received and we file them in our vault, sometimes never to be heard by again.”

Dispatch political reporters Lori Kurtzman and Holly Zachariah pointed out: “…just six months ago, during a hearing at the Franklin County Board of Elections, coalition members were told all petitions were supposed to go to the city clerk and not to the auditor.”

They also noted: “During that hearing, Don McTigue (the lawyer for the Franklin County Democratic Party and adviser to local Democrats who want the petitions killed) argued in front of the elections board that one of the ‘flaws’ in the petitions was that the coalition handed copies to the city auditor and not the city clerk.”

Now, the Ohio Supreme Court will decide whether the repressive and authoritarian tactics of Blevins and Pfeiffer will usher in a new anti-democratic era in the City of Columbus.

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Bob Fitrakis is a member of the Columbus Coalition for Responsive Government and has served as their attorney in the past.