Thanks to a “Progressive,” a well-connected Democratic attorney and four lockstep election officials, the citizens of Columbus remain stuck paying off four rich Columbus families for the Nationwide Arena debt and Columbus City elections will not be as open to independent candidates as it could be with public financing.
At a Monday, February 3 hearing, the Franklin County Board of Elections voted 4-0 to keep two petitions off the ballot that could have rescinded the Arena bailout and provided publicly funded Columbus elections.
A century ago, the Progressive Era was coming to an end. But its legacy of citizen initiatives lived on for another century. In the period from 1901 to 1914 there was a tremendous push for municipal reform. At the heart of it were city and state charters that allowed people the right to vote on major public policy issues by initiating an ordinance, a law or a constitutional amendment.
In 1914, Columbus adopted a new charter that gave its citizens the right to initiate and legislate their own policies and take on what were often corrupt municipal political machines.
That Progressive Era democratic legacy is now over. The Franklin County Board of Elections ruled two citizen initiatives off the ballot despite each having enough signatures.
By dissecting the decision one can document historically how a new era of big money and high priced attorneys has trumped the rights of the people.
One petition in question was entitled “Arena Bailouts Demand a Vote.” The Arena Bailout petition sought to end Columbus city subsidies to Nationwide Arena. Columbus citizens have voted against publicly funding an arena or entertainment district five times in recent Columbus history.
Nevertheless, the Columbus City Council voted in February 2012 to spend a quarter of a billion dollars in casino tax money to prop up Nationwide Arena and the Columbus Blue Jackets. In a debate that lasted approximately 15 minutes, the Council rushed through the largest “wealthfare” subsidy in the history of the capital city without any vote from the people. Nationwide Insurance and four of the city’s wealthiest families including the Wolfes, who own the Columbus Dispatch, were bailed out with public money. The initiative petitioners argued that no such expenditure of public money should occur without the consent of the people.
The campaign gathered and submitted 6903 valid signatures, topping the required 4473 signatures needed to put an initiative on Columbus’ May primary ballot for voters to rescind the arena “bailout.”
The Board of Elections refused to place the Arena bailout vote on the ballot primarily because the summary was “misleading,” based on the subsidy numbers and savings to the taxpayers. Under-oath testimony established that all the numbers were public records supplied by the city. The Columbus Dispatch article on the board’s decision (Feb. 3) failed to mention that their paper was one of the
recipients of bailout money and received an estimated $25,000. A Dispatch vice president was one of the two protesters who successfully kept the issue off the ballot. The Dispatch also failed to report this fact.
The other petition, “Columbus Fair Campaigns Code,” would have allowed public funding for Columbus city electoral campaigns for candidates who voluntarily limited their spending. Seventy percent of the campaign funds for candidates running in the 2013 Columbus City Council election came from a Super PAC funded by City Council President Andrew Ginther. The petition initiators argued that publicly funded campaigns allow for a wider range of individuals to run for office consisting of candidates who would be less beholden to the city’s power elite.
This campaign garnered 9284 valid signatures, well over the 4478 threshold. Despite the Columbus City Clerk certifying that there were more than enough signatures to place the initiatives on the ballot, City Attorney Rick Pfeiffer recommended that the City turn to the Franklin County Board of Elections for the final decision on whether or not the issues would appear on the May primary ballot. At the crux of the issue was Ohio Revised Code 731.41 which states that under “home rule” a city with provisions for citizen initiatives in their charter are not governed by state law. The county Board of Elections exists under state law and is directed by the Ohio Secretary of State.
In a memo dated November 29, 2013, Pfeiffer acknowledged that were no problems with the initiative petitions under the city charter. But, some potentially problems existed under state law. “The potentially fatal defects in the petition submitted to the Clerk that I have identified do not involve interpretation of the city charter requirements but rather are primarily matters of state election law on which there’s no established case law on point and therefore require an interpretation of that law,” Pfeiffer wrote in a memo to Councilman Andrew Ginther. Pfeiffer, while under oath, read from this memo. The Board of Elections ignored the memo and the initiative provisions in the city charter and sided with Brian Rothenberg, who opposed the initiative going on the ballot. Rothenberg is the former communications director of the Ohio Democratic Party who now runs ProgressOhio. His attorney, Don McTigue, is perhaps the most well-known Democratic Party election attorney in the city. McTigue serves as Ginther’s election attorney as well.
Disregarding Pfeiffer’s memo, McTigue argued that there was case law, although Pfeiffer’s memo stated none existed. On both petition issues, the Board of Elections voted 4-0 to stop Columbus citizens from voting on publicly financed elections and against the Arena bailout. This bipartisan endorsement of the Columbus status quo symbolizes the death of the Progressive Era and the complete rejection by election officials of the people’s right to vote on policy if they gather enough legitimate signatures.
Bob Fitrakis was the attorney for the petitioners.