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Advocates Unhappy With How Affordable Housing Amendment Could Appear On Ballot

Cincinnati City Council has sent an affordable housing charter amendment approved by voter petitions to the May ballot with a new, longer summary. Council members voted 8-1 on the new ballot language Wednesday.

Council was required to pass an ordinance putting the amendment on the ballot because it received enough signatures, as certified by the Hamilton County Board of Elections.

Deputy City Solicitor Emily Smart Woerner told council members in a committee meeting Tuesday they have an obligation to ensure the ballot summary is "fair, honest and accurate."

"We can't leave out key parts and we can't include persuasive language," Woerner said. "The proposal in the box that came with the part petitions, we thought, left out key portions of this proposal. This language adds in those key portions and describes what the charter amendment does."

The petitions included this short summary to appear on the ballot:

Shall the Charter of the City of Cincinnati be amended to establish the City of Cincinnati Affordable Housing Trust Fund for the purpose of creating and preserving affordable housing to meet the needs of families, households, and individuals with low incomes, preventing the displacement of families and individuals, promoting neighborhood stabilization and preventing the loss of affordable housing; establish the City of Cincinnati Housing Trust Fund Board to oversee the Fund; and authorize Council to provide for minimum financing of the Fund by enacting new Article XCII.

City Solicitor Andrew Garth says his office revised and expanded the summary.

"The ballot language presented by petitioners is grossly misleading and it does not accurately communicate what voters are being asked to do," Garth told council members Wednesday. "It doesn't say that $50 million must be appropriated every year, that it's a minimum amount, and that it's an ongoing commitment."

The new summary is significantly longer with three sub-sections. (Read the full ordinance below – story continues after document.)

Housing Charter Amendment O... by WVXU News

The petitioners challenged the new summary in a letter sent to council members Wednesday morning. Speaking to council during the public comment portion of Wednesday's meeting, Josh Spring of the Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition said council members are free to vote against the amendment themselves.

"But what council is not free to do is to materially change the language 9,541 people signed," Spring said. "What you are looking at today includes opinion that is meant to persuade people to vote no. That is not how our democratic process works. And of course, all it leads to is this game where it passes, we challenge it, we fight back and forth, and we just take more time, more money, doing that."

Spring said they would be OK with adding the annual $50 million to the ballot summary.

Council Member Chris Seelbach was the only opposing vote. He says he agrees with the challenges submitted by petitioners.

"I don't believe that the ballot language offered is fair and don't think it substantially reflects what was in the petition," Seelbach said, clarifying that he doesn't support the initiative itself. "However, I would support another initiative that increased the earnings tax to do what's trying to be done."

Just prior to the vote, City Solicitor Garth told council members they have a "statutory duty to act" to approve the ordinance.

Mayor John Cranley asked Garth: "Are you suggesting that a council member could be held in contempt if they don't vote to put it on the ballot?"

Garth replied: "I'm not going to speculate as to consequences, but I just want to make sure that everyone is aware that there is a statutory duty to act."

The Board of Elections will ultimately decide what language appears on the ballot. Deputy Director Sally Krisel says they'll send the language to the Ohio Secretary of State's Office for review, as they do all charter amendments. Krisel says they typically use the language approved by City Council.

The petitioners could file a legal challenge. In a statement after the vote, Margaret Fox of the Metropolitan Area Religious Coalition of Cincinnati — one of the groups sponsoring the amendment — said the committee is considering other remedies.

Read the City Solicitor's full opinion regarding the amendment below:

City Solicitor Opinion - Af... by WVXU News

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Becca Costello