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Proposed provision could set new rules for citizen ballot initiatives in Columbus

Petition collection clipboard
Karen Kasler
Ohio Public Radio

Columbus’ Charter Review Commission is considering four proposals for amendments to the city’s charter, including one that could change the way the city handles citizen initiative petitions.

The commission plans to make a final set of recommendations in July and if Columbus City Council decides to take action on them, voters will decide whether or not to adopt the provisions in the general election.

City Attorney Zach Klein said his office worked on one proposal meant to deter “self-dealing” in petition initiatives by prohibiting codified monopolies.

Klein at a meeting of the charter commission this week said the provision would protect the city from predatory initiatives. He referenced the way the state legalized casinos and medical marijuana in the state, and the failed attempt in 2021 to pass Issue 7. That ballot issue would have siphoned $87 million from the general fund to promote what supporters called “green energy use” in the city.

In the lead up to the vote, Mayor Andrew Ginther called the issue a scam, saying the issue's proponents manipulated the democratic process to deal themselves public tax dollars through a ballot issue.

Klein said this change to the charter could prevent something like that from happening in the future.

Petitions deemed to violate the provision banning “monopolies and similar special privileges” would result in two ballot initiatives for the ballot – one to approve or deny the subject and a second allowing voters to choose whether or not to allow the exception.

And petitions turned in would be required to include the names and addresses of all of those who would gain commercial benefit from the initiative and how much public money they would receive in the three years after passage, said John Oswalt, the city’s senior legislative advisor.

The provision could also require new initiatives to get signatures from at least 5% of voters active in the last election in five of the nine districts in the city, instead of 10% of voters active in the last election citywide.

The recommended provision would “thwart” democracy because some districts could have more than the needed percentage in some districts, but the effort could fail because a tenth of a percent miss in a single district, said Bill Lyons, a co-organizer of the Columbus Community Bill of Rights.

Sandy Bolzenius of Columbus said the commission’s effort should be focused on “protecting the democratic process” and not “vilifying” and “impeding” on that process.

Klein said the provisions are not finalized in their terms, and the commission can tweak them as necessary. He said the provision is meant to protect the charter from schemes designed to “fleece” the taxpayers.

One of the other revisions the commission is considering would give city council more flexibility when it comes to writing their rules for hosting public meetings.

“It would allow city council to determine by ordinance how a public meeting can be conducted, rules and regulations, really. If votes could be taken virtually, for example, instead of in-person, [and] the methods by which council could ensure public access to the meeting,” Oswalt said.

The other proposals include modernizing language concerning the authority of the city auditor and giving the mayor’s office more choice when it comes to appointing an acting mayor in cases where the mayor is unable to serve.

Renee Fox is a reporter for 89.7 NPR News.