By Jordyn Grzelewski
Today, village residents will have the opportunity to weigh in on an ordinance to rezone property for a HomeGoods distribution center.
The village will host a public hearing in council chambers at 11 a.m. on the proposal to rezone 290 acres on Ellsworth-Bailey and Hallock-Young roads from residential to industrial. Immediately after the hearing, council will have a special meeting for the first of three readings of the legislation. A vote on the legislation is expected to take place Thursday.
Since news of the proposal broke in March, it has drawn both outspoken critics and passionate supporters. Critics are opposed to the use of residential land, among other concerns. Supporters cite the 1,000 jobs TJX says the distribution center could create within five years of opening.
Opponents have said they plan to petition for a referendum if council approves the zone changes. Normally, a referendum vote would take place during the November election, but after TJX expressed concerns about a possible delay in the project, state legislators wrote legislation that would expedite a referendum.
Gov. John Kasich signed that legislation into law Thursday.
The amendment to House Bill 292, written by state Sen. Sean O’Brien of Bazetta, D-32nd, was tailored to fit the situation in Lordstown. It applies to “a village whose legislative authority, during the period beginning on May 15, 2018, and ending on Sept. 1, 2018, considers an ordinance that would make zoning or other changes to accommodate a new use of real property located in the village that the legislative authority determines is likely to bring at least 500 new jobs and at least $50 million in investment to the village.”
The legislation states the county board of elections must schedule a special election for a referendum “on the first Tuesday at least sixty days after the day on which is ordinance is passed” and says a referendum petition must be filed “no later than the 30th day after the ordinance is passed.”
Though the amendment’s changing of the referendum process has been widely reported, another provision of the legislation has gotten less attention.
The HB 292 amendment also deals with the number of votes needed to approve the ordinance by stipulating that if a member of council is present but abstains from voting, “the member’s seat on the legislative authority shall not be counted for the purpose of determining the required number of votes for the legislative authority to pass the ordinance or to pass the ordinance as an emergency measure.”
In this case, one council member, Ronald Radtka, will abstain from voting, due to a conflict of interest. That leaves council with five out of six members voting. Two have said they plan to vote “no.”
Under Ohio law, an ordinance requires “a vote of at least a majority of all the members of the legislative authority” to pass. For village council, a majority would be four.
With this change, however, that number is three.
O’Brien says state law is unclear, however, on whether an abstaining vote is counted with the majority or minority.
“We drafted that to get rid of the confusion,” he said. “It’s just clearing up the law.”
A bill analysis by the Ohio Legislative Service Commission similarly notes that Ohio law does not specify whether an abstaining member is counted as part of the legislative body.
“In the absence of such an ordinance or rule, Ohio’s courts generally have held that an abstaining member’s seat is not counted in determining the required number of votes for a majority, the same as the bill’s provision in this particular circumstance,” it states.
O’Brien said the amendment speeds up the process for TJX, while allowing residents to have a say.
“Everyone has the ability to have a say in what goes on in their community, and I think that’s what democracy is about,” he said.
Some people in the community see it differently.
“I’m concerned about the corruption of the process by the mayor and the legislators in Columbus,” said village resident Mark McGrail. “The process was already there to have a referendum. It didn’t need to be changed.”
McGrail said he is concerned about the shortened time period for gathering signatures and getting word out about a referendum.
He also is concerned about the abstention procedure.
The legislation “takes it down to three votes, which is exactly the number of people the mayor thinks he has on council who will vote for this,” he said. “So they’re cheating.”
Village Mayor Arno Hill said he was not involved in drafting the legislation but supports it.
“I think our state legislators would like to see the jobs,” he said. “The people who are fighting this are coming up with any and all reasons they can to try and stop it.”
There will not be a vote on the legislation at today’s meeting. After a second reading of the legislation at a 6 p.m. council meeting Monday, Hill said he expects a third reading and vote to take place Thursday.
The two council members opposed to the zone changes, Robert Bond and Karen Jones, pushed back rumors they plan not to attend the vote.
“No one has ever, ever, ever said that. That is absolutely not true,” said Jones. “I intend to be there for all of the meetings.”