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Critics of Columbus ballot restrictions eventually come around

The city ran an active campaign against the self-dealing green energy ballot issue. It tasked the Charter Review Comission, five residents and community leaders to review the charter and issue recommendations to create a ban on any issues like it in the future.
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The City of Columbus tasked five residents to review the city's charter in January. It met 13 times and held two public commenting periods. It issued three recommended changes to the governing document and will appear on the November ballot. The city actively campaigned against the self-dealing ballot issue in 2021 and was soundly defeated.

It’s been two years since a shadowy green energy bill graced Columbus ballots. in 2021, Issue 7 was petitioned by John Clarke Jr. and ProEnergy Ohio, a private group of five people.

They asked voters to approve an $87 million proposal to subsidize electric bills and to invest in green energy sources.

Clark never disclosed exactly how that money would be used and it would’ve had zero oversight. Heralded as a scam by the city, it ran an active campaign against it and the initiative failed by an overwhelming number of votes.

Columbus City Council president Shannon Hardin said the self-dealing ban known as Issue 19 on the November, is a response to that effort.

“It would’ve sent a terrible shiver down all of us to think that we would give a large percentage of our city’s income and give it to five people, that just is so undemocratic, that then we’d have no more oversight for that,” Hardin said.

Columbus’ Charter Review Commission was tasked in January to review the city’s charter and recommend the ban as an amendment.

Part of the original recommendation would have made it harder for citizens to gather signatures, said Bill Lyons, a co-organizer for the Columbus Community Bill of Rights.

The group has led four different initiatives in the past which included protections for water quality and oil drilling bans.

“They were going to require a certain percent of signatures from five out of nine of the city council districts that are supposed to take effect next year,” Lyons said.

Lyons said signature gatherings should not be limited to certain city council districts. He also said the time limit for signature gathering is bogus.

“In fact, all the other major cities in Ohio that I’ve checked,
there’s no time limit there as well," he said. "The only one I saw was Dayton, that had a time limit on ordinances and that was just to get a certain number of signatures. It didn’t depend on a certain percent of how many voted.”

Before 2014, the charter did not have time limits on the signature-gathering process.

Voters approved an amendment to the charter at the time, that limited the period to one year and required the city attorney to determine if petitions were sufficient. It also created the Charter Review Commissions.

Bill Lyons and others testified during the public comment period. Lyons led the effort to squash the city's initial recommendations to limit signature gathering to city council precincts. They requested extended time for signature gathering.
City of Columbus
Bill Lyons and others testified during the public comment period. Lyons led the effort to squash the city's initial recommendations to limit signature gathering to city council precincts. They requested extended time for signature gathering.

Other Columbus residents like Jonathan Beard remain critical of the city’s lack of support for citizen-led ballot initiatives.

Beard was president of Columbus Compact Corporation, a HUD-funded community redevelopment group for 22 years, raising millions for distressed neighborhoods and people experiencing homelessness.

He was also part of an effort in 2014 to reform city elections. At the time, he said the new template for signature gathering was an overreach that benefited politicians.

He recently petitioned for rent control in Columbus before the state banned those kinds of efforts.

“Although we have rights under the state constitution to initiate ballot initiatives at citizens, the city has done everything possible to make them harder at every chance they get,” Beard said.

Beard and advocates like Lyons, said the ban on self-dealing is a yes vote.

“In part because of citizen input," he said. "It restores some voting rights that were stripped away from us 10 years ago. ”

City Council president Hardin said the charter review commission and city council take those concerns seriously. He said the public commenting period was crucial to get the citizen-recommended extension added to the self-dealing ban.

“I mean we literally heard them loud and clear," he said. "That’s why we took it from one year time to get petitions to two years literally doubling the amount of time. These are our friends, are very strong opinionated advocates in our community. They’re doing hard work and digging deeper and leading on issues.”

Hardin also said adding the extension made sense when life-altering events like a global pandemic limit organizers ability to gather signatures.

“We had folks who tried to put in petitions during the pandemic and wanted extra time," he said. "We didn’t have those authorities to do that.”

The charter review commission will meet again in 10 years to review changes to the city’s governing document. Voters will decide on Issue 19 in November. Beard and Lyons would both like to see more support for citizen led issues in the future.

Tyler Thompson was a reporter and on-air host for 89.7 NPR News. Thompson, originally from northeast Ohio, has spent the last three years working as a Morning Edition host and reporter at NPR member station KDLG Public Radio and reporter at the Bristol Bay Times Newspaper in Dillingham, Alaska.