COLUMBIANA CO. Will officials challenge ballot issues?



City officials are mum on whether the proposals may wind up in court.
By D.A. WILKINSON
VINDICATOR SALEM BUREAU
SALEM -- Proposals that could block efforts to eliminate the city's fire department are heading toward the ballot, but city officials are mum on whether they may launch a court challenge.
Salem is trying to cope with a tight budget. Council and Perry Township are in talks to create a new fire district that would serve both jurisdictions.
Past and present city firefighters have collected signatures to place two initiative petitions before voters in November.
The first, if approved, would block council from eliminating the fire department until voters could vote on the issue.
The second, if approved, would prevent the formation of the fire district without voters' deciding the issue.
There is support for both issues.
John Payne, director of the Columbiana County Board of Elections, said each issue needed 10 percent of the 3,513 votes cast in the city in the 2002 general election to get on the ballot.
The first had 789 valid signatures of registered voters and the second had 766 valid signatures of registered voters.
Rare action
The idea of putting possible council action to a public vote, however, appears to be rare.
Payne said he has never seen anything like it in his 11 years as director.
James Lee, a spokesman for the Ohio Secretary of State's Office, said he had never heard of anything like it. Susan Cave, the executive director of the Ohio Municipal League, agreed, saying the situation is "unusual."
Cave said initiative petitions are usually "designed to either create, amend, or get rid of an existing law."
Lee said it's not up to the board of elections to decide whether the proposals are legal or are constitutional. Those issues would have to be decided in court, he said.
City Auditor James Armeni said that under state law he must write the language that will appear on the ballot based on the petitions. That will be done by the Aug. 19 deadline, he said.
But Armeni and several council members declined to say whether city officials are concerned about the language in the proposals, or would challenge the petitions in court for any reason.
City officials directed questions to C. Brooke Zellers, the city law director, and Amanda Gordon, a lawyer with an Akron firm that also works for the city. Neither returned phone calls.
Rumors of a challenge
Justin Palmer, a city resident and college student who is leading the petition effort, said he has heard there will be a challenge, but he noted there are often rumors in the city.
Palmer said the petition language was specifically drafted by an attorney because council repeatedly suspends its rules and gives the three readings to pass an ordinance at one time.
"That's the rule, not the exception," he said.
Such fast approval would prohibit a referendum on any legislation dissolving the fire department or creating the fire district, he said.
The language of the petitions was created, Palmer said, to "ensure the public has a right to vote."
wilkinson@vindy.com

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