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Ohio Supreme Court Upholds Council’s Rejection of Proposed Charter Amendment

Lauren Sega Lauren Sega Ohio Supreme Court Upholds Council’s Rejection of Proposed Charter Amendment
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Columbusites won’t be voting on district representation this May. Issue 4, the initiative to transform the city’s electoral process into a ward-based system, was rejected for placement on the ballot by Columbus City Council, a decision recently upheld by the Ohio Supreme Court. Citizens’ ballot committee Everyday People for Positive Change (EDP), who backs the issue, has filed for a motion of reconsideration, but it’s unlikely Issue 4 will make a return in time for the May 8 primary election.

Last month, EDP filed a lawsuit against the Franklin County Board of Elections and each individual member of council for the rejection of Issue 4. The initiative would have reformed council in both its composition and functions, adding six spots for a total of 13 council members, changing the appointment process, and capping campaign donations. An ambitious proposal, council voted against it, claiming it violated the single-subject rule.

The Supreme Court upheld council’s action in a 4-3 decision last week. A concurring opinion was submitted by Justice Fischer, who agreed “in judgement only.” Fischer said that, if EDP had challenged council’s authority to deny the proposal based on the single-subject rule, he would have voted differently. Instead, EDP challenged their violation of the rule itself.

“When considering a petition for a proposed charter amendment, a city council’s constitutional authority is circumscribed: its review ‘is limited to matters of form, not substance,’” Fischer wrote. “‘A city council may not engage in judicial or quasi-judicial determinations.’ Our prior cases have suggested that a possible violation of similar one-subject rules is a question of substance, not form.”

In 2014, a charter amendment passed (Issue 7), which gave council more power in determining proposals that would end up in front of voters. While council can’t rule on constitutionality, Issue 7 did establish the requirement that the city attorney “determine if a petition addresses a single subject and is legally sufficient.”

EDP Committee Member Jonathan Beard interprets another part of that amendment, which states that “no city officer may consider the subject matter of a petition when determining the legal sufficiency thereof,” as prohibiting council from making such judgments.

At the time, critics of Issue 7, including Beard, said council was grasping for “extra-judicial” powers it shouldn’t have.

While Issue 4 probably won’t make a comeback in time for the primary election, a Council-grown ballot proposal, Issue 3, would establish a district-at-large system in which nine members are elected at large but are required to live in specified districts.

“I think it will flop like a fish on the bank of a river,” Beard said. “It’s a terrible proposal, and they don’t seem too interested in campaigning for it. I think they did it just to confuse the electorate about Issue 4.”

Beard said they aren’t done fighting for district representation.

“They probably thought after Issue 1 (2016) failed, we’d go away, and we came back stronger,” he said. “Council is taking constitutional action, and that shows an absolute need for reform.”

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