Legal battle looms over a couple of Youngstown ballot initiatives

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State Sen. Joe Schiavoni, a 2018 Democratic gubernatorial candidate, announced a plan to increase job growth and employment through targeted investments. The bill will be introduced shortly in the Senate.

“We’ve spent too long waiting for the Republicans’ plan to work,” said Schiavoni of Boardman, D-33rd. “It’s time to proactively invest in our state to expand small businesses, strengthen our economy, and create good-paying jobs right now.”

The legislative package will help grow Ohio’s economy by investing in small business tax credits, worker training programs and initiatives to rebuild our state’s crumbling infrastructure, Schiavoni said.

The legislation would repeal the Republican-backed small-business “LLC Loophole” which benefits fewer than 14 percent of Ohioans and costs more than $1 billion annually, Schiavoni said. That money could be better spent on programs that directly invest in workers, communities and all types of small businesses, he said.

An attorney representing committees backing two Youngstown charter-amendment proposals is threatening to sue the Mahoning County Board of Elections for waiting until next Wednesday to decide whether it will certify the pair of initiatives to the Nov. 7 ballot.

In a letter to the board, Terry Jonathan Lodge of Toledo, the attorney representing the committees, wrote that he questions the board’s intentions because its members are meeting just one day before the deadline to certify charter amendments. It’s the board’s regularly scheduled meeting day.

“We have good reason to be skeptical of the board’s slowness to act,” Lodge wrote. “In a Vindicator article dated August 9, 2017, state Sen. Kevin Bacon is noted for his comment at the December 2016 passage of House Bill 463 that the Youngstown anti-fracking proposal was a main reason to gut the law and allow BOE’s [board of elections] to exclude initiatives from public vote on little more than political whim.”

A new state law requires a board of elections to invalidate a local initiative petition if it determines any part of the petition falls outside the local government’s constitutional authority to enact it.

One proposal is a fracking ban that’s been rejected six previous times by voters and the other changes how elections are run in Youngstown.

State law gives jurisdiction over fracking to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. Opponents of the proposal have long said the requested ban isn’t enforceable because of that state law. Supporters say that should be determined after the proposal is passed and challenged in court.

The election measure restricts political contributions to $100 per ballot measure and candidate and only permits registered city voters to contribute. The proposal bans corporations, labor unions, political action committees, political parties and other campaign funding entities from giving any contributions to city candidates and ballot measures.

That could conflict with free-speech issues and campaign-contribution court decisions.

Mayor John A. McNally said the city doesn’t plan to give an opinion on the legality of the two proposals to the board of elections and leave the decision to its members.

If the board rejects the two proposals – and it’s likely it will – the state law allows an appeal to the secretary of state. If that is rejected, the matter heads to court though backers of the initiatives may just file directly with the courts.

If the matter drags on, Lodge wrote the board will have only itself to blame if it loses and a court compels it to put it on a ballot, even a special one at a considerable cost – though having a meeting this week almost certainly wouldn’t change anything.

“If litigation over the BOE’s exercise of the unlawful discretion granted by House Bill 463, or on other grounds, is inevitable, it is advisable to get that question before a court sooner rather than later,” Lodge wrote. “If the committee prevails after the ballot has been contracted out for printing, there will be considerable cost and logistical problems for the BOE. Given the people’s extreme good faith in submitting the petitions at the beginning of August, it will be the BOE’s communications problem if, for example, a special election has to be ordered.”

The Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber’s board of directors is urging the board of elections to keep both measures off the ballot stating parts of the proposals are “beyond the scope of local authority to enact via initiative.”

In a letter, Thomas Humphries, the chamber’s president and chief executive officer, wrote on behalf of his board: “Both charter amendments contain measures beyond the scope of Youngstown’s authority to enact” as they are “administrative rather than legislative in nature.”

As I wrote last month, the Ohio Legislative Service Commission – the nonpartisan agency that provides the General Assembly with research, budget and fiscal analysis – told legislators that a court might find that the bill places an unconstitutional burden on the people’s right of initiative.

The commission added: “While it is not clear precisely how a reviewing court would interpret the act’s language, it appears that the act would, for example, prevent an initiated city ordinance from appearing on the ballot if the board of elections determined that the proposed ordinance would be unenforceable because of a conflict with state law. Or, the act might prevent a county charter proposal from appearing on the ballot if the board determined that the substance of the proposed charter would be unconstitutional.”

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