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City Council to Vote On Regulations To Place Referendums On Ballot

City of Columbus

Columbus City Council tonight is scheduled to vote on legislation making it tougher for individuals or groups to place an initiative or referendum before the voters. Jim Letizia reports. 

The legislation is based on recommendations from the Charter Review Commission, appointed by city council and the mayor's office to clarify the process for submitting an initiative or referendum that in many cases would overturn council's ordinances and initiatives. Last year, a citizens group called The Columbus Coalition for Responsive Government collected peitition signatures to ask voters to approve the public financing of municipal election campaigns and block the city from making its payments for the public purchase of Nationwide Arena. Council rejected those proposals in December and January respectively. Now the commission wants to give council more power to declare petition signatures are valid and whether the wording of a petition or initiative is accurate and appropriate. The legislation would also require backers of a referendum or initiative to gather enough valid petition signatures to equal 5 percent of voter turnout in the last mayoral election instead of the last municipal election. Voter turnout is generally higher in mayoral election years.  The legislation also creates a requirement for  petitions to contain a title and summary approved by the city attorney's office. It takes the power of validating signatures from the city clerk and gives it to council, which would also check with the city attorney to ensure the petitions comply with the charter. It also creates a one year deadline for petitioners to gather signatures once the issue is certified. Critics of tighter ballot access include third parties and their supporters, who say referendums are one of the only tools citizens have to fight City Hall and powerful local interests. Jonathan Beard of the Columbus Coalition for Responsive Government voiced similar sentiments when arguing for the campaign finanace proposal last December.

Beard:    As Americans we believe that competition brings out the best in us.  And that happens everywhere except in our political lives, where politicians try to make elections more non-competitive, less fair,try to preserve and protect seats, and they  do it regardless of party and regardless of level of government, with the gerrymandering, with this, with the cost of elections, whatever the case may be.  But that's what you you do.  And that's as un-American as you can expect.  We're a nation that believes competition is good.

Beard has said he supports many of the charter changes because they clarify the process, but he opposes allowing council to validate petitions, fearing a potential conflict of interest if the issue at hand involves a previous council action. City officials say council approval of referendums and initiatives makes council members more accountable to the voters. They also say tonight's legislation clarifies the process for getting issues before the voters. When council rejected the arena proposal last January, City Attorney Rick Pfeffer said there were several problems with it that were created in part by a lack of clarity in the charter.

Pfeffer: This petition contains most of the same defects that I identified in the previous petition.  Most notably, it again appears that the petitioners erroneously relied on the Ohio Revised Code section that deals only with state-wide initiative petitions.And reliance on the wrong statute has again resulted in two significant defects in this petition.  First, the petition contains a summary prepared by the petitioners.  neither the city charter nor the provisions of the Revised Code that are applicable to  municipal petitions require or authorize any summary to appear in the petition.   The second significant defect in the petition is it's non-compliance with Revised Code section 731.33,  which requires the specific notice language be printed in red at the top of each top of petition. 

The ballot access measure is one of three pieces of legislation containing recommended charter changes on which council is scheduled to vote. If approved, the legislation would then be placed on the ballot for voter approval.  The charter review commission has five members: a former Columbus Dispatch editor, a former Columbus School Board member, a former city council aide, a representative of the Central Ohio Transit Authority, and City Auditor Hugh Dorrian.

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