Columbus City Charter Issues 6, 7 and 8 were the subjects at an Oct. 6 debate sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Metropolitan Columbus. But the matters in dispute at the public event, held at the Whetstone Branch Library, involved only Issue 7. If approved by the voters on Nov. 4, Issue 7 would change Columbus’ procedures for citizen-initiated ordinances, referendums, charter amendments and recall elections. .

Michael Curtin, retired from The Dispatch after 38 years and now a state representative for District 17 in the Ohio House of Representatives, was pitted against Jonathan Beard, president and CEO of the Columbus Compact Corporation. Beard is also chair of the Columbus Coalition for Responsive Government, which in recent years has made several tries to place initiatives about city issues on the Columbus ballot.

Curtin was co-chair of the five-member Charter Review Commission appointed earlier this year by Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman and City Council President Andrew Ginther. The commission was charged with recommending updates and improvements to the city’s foundational governing document, the 100-year-old city charter.

After meeting for several months, the commission recommended 19 changes to the charter. City council approved all of them, but with some tweaks and changes. Council packaged the modified recommendations into three issues for the voters to decide: Issue 6, dealing with administration of city government; Issue 7, covering elections; and Issue 8, concerning officeholders and their behavior.

Beard agreed with Curtin that Issues 6 and 8 mainly involve modernizations of the city charter, which contains many antiquities that haven’t been followed for years. “I don’t think there’s a whole lot in there that’s controversial,” Beard said of those two issues. He therefore focused his remarks on Issue 7.\

Curtin described Issue 7 as removing antiquities too. He said it also clarifies the procedures for citizens to use in petitioning for changes in their city government, and makes city practices more consistent with what is done at the state level.

But Beard charged that Issue 7 tilts the balance of power from the people to self-serving politicians who wrote the amendment, diminishes the role of citizens in their local government and appears to give city council judicial powers it has no business possessing.

They debated some specific provisions of Issue 7, followed by a period for questions and comments from the audience.


Templates for petition forms


Issue 7 requires the city clerk to provide templates for citizens to use for their petitions to change city law or recall an elected official. Curtin said this means citizens will receive the proper forms, and no petition will be subject to technical objections, as have been made in the past, such as that the wrong color of ink was used.

Beard said the templates could be beneficial by clarifying the process. But he doesn’t think they need to be required by the charter. He stated that city officials could place templates in a brochure or on the city’s website without a charter amendment.

Beard suspects that because this change could be done without a charter amendment, its inclusion in Issue 7 might be a “Trojan horse” intended to make the amendment appear helpful to citizens and inducing them to vote for it. But he warned that it’s accompanied by other changes taking away their rights, giving city officials more power over them and strengthening the status quo.


Increased signature requirement


For an initiated ordinance, Issue 7 increases the number of signatures required from the current 5% of votes cast at the last municipal election to 5% cast at the last election for mayor. The latter number is always higher.

Beard said this change roughly doubles the number of signatures a group needs to obtain during the two years following an off-year election. He doesn’t see a need for that and described it as “an unnecessary hurdle” for citizens.

Curtin noted that there are currently two standards for the number of signatures: a higher number for the two years after a mayoral election and a lower number for the two years following a non-mayoral election. He said the commission believed that all groups should have the same standard regardless of when they start a petition campaign.

As for why the higher rather than the lower standard was chosen, Curtin argued that “if you’re trying to initiate a city ordinance, if you’re trying to change the city charter, it should be relatively difficult. The fundamental law of the city shouldn’t be easy to change.”

Beard responded that submitting signatures doesn’t change the law but only places the issue on the ballot for voters to discuss and decide. He added: “I would say that putting things on the ballot for public discussion shouldn’t be all that difficult to do.” He argued that Columbus already has too much repression of public debate, such as by not allowing public access TV and not televising the discussion of nonagenda items at city council meetings.


One-year timeframe for submitting petitions


Issue 7 requires that for an initiated ordinance or charter amendment, the signed petitions must be filed within one year of the required pre-circulation submission of a certified copy to the city clerk. Currently there’s no time limit for filing the petitions.

Curtin said the commission thought there should be a time limit instead of allowing petitions to be filed many years or even decades after a petition campaign began. He acknowledged that arguments can be made about what the limit should be. The commission decided one year was reasonable.

Beard stated he probably wouldn’t object to the idea of a timeframe, but indicated the period should be longer. An audience member expressed concern that it takes time to raise community awareness of issues, and said “this concept of one year could be very difficult for grassroots concepts to take hold in the community.” Beard replied that he didn’t disagree with her.


City attorney’s pre-circulation review of petition


Issue 7 says that upon the city clerk’s receipt of the certified pre-circulation copy of a petition, the city attorney will review it to determine legal sufficiency and “shall report the same to the city clerk and the members of council.”

Beard said that by not requiring the city attorney to report the legal determination to citizens who filed the petition, their group could be gathering signatures for months without knowing that the city had already decided the petition was invalid.

Curtin described this review by the city attorney as similar to what he said the attorney general does at the state level. Curtin maintained that the city attorney will inform the petitioners of any problem before they start collecting signatures, and will not invoke the attorney-client privilege to keep the information from them.


City attorney’s post-circulation review of petition


Issue 7 provides that after the petition has been circulated and the signatures submitted to the city clerk, the city attorney will review the documents and “advise on the legal sufficiency of the petition, based upon any applicable local, state or federal laws, rules, or regulations.”

In regard to this review, the amendment states: “No city officer may consider the subject matter of a petition when determining the legal sufficiency thereof, except as required to assure compliance with applicable provisions of this charter, general laws of the state, or ordinance of council.”

Beard said those provisions appear to give the city attorney and city council judicial power to determine the legality of a governmental reform being proposed by citizens, and to keep the issue off the ballot without voting on the substance of it if the officials decide the reform would violate a law. City council does not have that option currently, but must either enact the proposal or send it to the ballot for the voters to decide. Beard argued that this apparent change “puts too much power in the hands of city council.”

Curtain noted that the amendment specifies that city officials cannot consider the substance of the issue in determining legal sufficiency. He said city council will perform only a ministerial and not a judicial function. He argued it would be political suicide for council to “frustrate the will of tens of thousands of signers of petitions based on a specious technicality.”

In the days following the debate, Bryan Clark, senior legislative advisor to the Charter Review Commission and an attendee at the debate, asked Joshua Cox, chief counsel in the city attorney’s office, for clarification of the city government’s powers regarding this determination of a petition’s legal sufficiency. Clark shared Cox’s position with Curtin, who forwarded it to Beard.

According to Cox’s legal opinion: “Legal sufficiency is limited to determining compliance with the form requirements of the Charter and state elections law, not the substance of the proposed measure. Not placing a measure on the ballot for ‘conflicting’ with the Constitution, for instance, is not permitted as a matter of law.”


Council’s power to summarize arguments for voters


Issue 7 states that if an initiated ordinance, referendum or charter amendment qualifies for the ballot, city council may prescribe and place at each voting location “arguments, of no more than two-hundred words each . . . both in support of and in opposition to” the proposal. The arguments “shall properly represent the substance, purpose and effect of the proposal.”

An audience member brought up this procedure and said she is “rather appalled” by it. She asserted that “many of those petitions are opposing things that city council has done, and then they get to define how that is done.”


No allowance for correcting a shortfall in the number of valid signatures


Issue 7 doesn’t give citizens additional time to gather signatures if election officials determine that not enough valid signatures were collected to qualify the proposal for the ballot. For initiatives and referendums at the state level, the Ohio Constitution gives citizens 10 additional days to collect signatures to cure a deficit in the number of needed signatures.

If Columbus citizens fall short by, say, five valid signatures, they can’t correct the deficiency by going on the street and collecting the needed signatures in a matter of minutes. They have to start from scratch, which likely involves spending thousands of dollars to collect thousands more signatures for months. That’s true under both current law and Issue 7.

Beard said the refusal to allow additional time shows that Issue 7 “is not a people-friendly amendment. This is an amendment that protects the vested interests and protects the status quo in that it does not support initiatives. It does not support people stepping out there to make changes for the betterment of their community.”


Recall of elected city officials


Issue 7 eliminates the current requirement that recall petitions be signed only at city firehouses or the city clerk’s office. It changes the signature requirement from 15% of registered voters to 15% of the total number of voters at the last regular election for mayor. Petitioners will have 30 days to collect the signatures. To begin a recall, filing an initial petition with 1,000 valid signatures would no longer be required.

Curtin said those changes make it easier to recall elected officials. He explained that the amendment drastically reduces the number of signatures required and allows petitions to be signed anywhere, not just at firehouses and the city clerk’s office.

An audience member objected: “But 30 days is not enough time” to collect three times the number of signatures needed for an initiated ordinance (which Issue 7 gives petitioners a year to collect signatures for).

Beard indicated agreement with her position. He doesn’t see a need for limiting the period to 30 days. And he said that because a recall effort will likely be grassroots, “15% is a lot of electors to get in 30 days.”