Board of Elections building

Columbus voters will decide three Issues on Tuesday’s ballot, and all three will change the Columbus City Charter. The city’s constitution since 1914, which can only be changed by a vote of Columbus’ citizens.

There’s Issue 19, which could ban citizen-initiatives seeking to create a “monopoly” or “special privilege.” Issue 20, which would make the City’s hiring process more subjective and less objective. And Issue 21, which could allow for virtual meetings for public bodies of the City and special emergencies for City Council.

From North Linden, to off-campus, to Hungarian Village, all three issues are flying under the radar. Even for those who regularly vote.

And as one local lefty activist recently told the Free Press, “If these are under the radar, they are all likely to pass.” What’s more they said, “It takes an expert to read and understand what they are really doing.”

Thank our lucky stars then for activists such as mayoral candidate Joe Motil and environmentalist Bill Lyons. Both have put a lot of (unpaid) effort into understanding and challenging City leadership “on what they are really doing.”

Over the previous year the Columbus City Charter had its ten-year review by a Charter Review Commission. A review commission which included a member of the Columbus Chamber of Commerce and a Coldwell Banker Realtor.

No surprise is how the process was “heavily scripted and undemocratic,” said Bill Lyons.

“The Charter Review Commission had seven meetings with city officials until the first public hearing,” he said. “During these seven meetings, city officials had the commissioners as a captured audience presenting lengthy proposals crafted mostly in their favor. Ultimately, the commission had eleven regular meetings and only two public hearings.”

All three Issues on the ballot are a result of this Charter Review Commission, and the following is a breakdown on what the three Issues will do to the Charter.

Mayoral candidate Joe Motil told us: “I am voting ‘no’ on 20 and 21, and ‘yes’ on 19.”

Issue 19

The proposed change to the City Charter would “implement a ban on initiatives that create a monopoly, oligopoly, or cartel; or otherwise confer a special privilege – such as a specific tax rate, commercial right, interest, or license.”

Issue 19 is in response to how ProEnergy Ohio in 2021 tried placing Issue 7 on the ballot which would have diverted $87 million of city funds for green energy projects. It was defeated by an unprecedented margin of 87% to 13%.

ProEnergy was attacked with gusto by the pay-to-play duo of Mayor Ginther and City Council. But a handful of community members thought this “weaselly green energy” group wasn’t entirely that shady, but instead a bumbling modern-day local Robinhood.

Nevertheless, ProEnergy director John Clarke is currently serving a four-month prison sentence for election falsification.

Indeed, very few citizen-led initiatives have ever made it on the ballot, says Lyons who is also a member of the grassroots Columbus Community Bill of Rights (CCBOR).

“I am aware of only one initiated charter amendment to ever make the ballot and only a handful of initiated ordinances,” he said.

So, when Lyons first heard the Charter Review Commission was to take place this year and that city officials were most concerned with making changes to the Charter because of ProEnergy’s Issue 7, he immediately thought, “How will this be used to further squash citizen initiative and referendum in Columbus?”

Lyons, unfortunately, knows firsthand what it’s like to have your citizen initiative squashed.

Since 2014, Lyons and his peers at CCBOR have made four attempts to put a citizen-initiative on a Columbus ballot. One that would have protected our watershed and soil from radioactive waste produced by fracking.

Sounds like it should have been a slam dunk. There are 13 aging fracking-waste storage wells north of Columbus in Delaware and Morrow counties, where the Central Ohio’s watershed begins its downstream journey. But CCBOR was derailed all four times, largely due to decisions made by City Council or the City Attorney’s office.

For example, in March of 2020, Lyons and CCBOR were nine months into their fourth campaign having collected 9,000 signatures, and well on the way to meeting the valid signature requirement.

Then COVID hit. They were just a few hundred short, but the Columbus City Charter requires signatures to be collected within a one-year window. CCBOR asked City Council and Council President Shannon Hardin to make an exception, but their answer was a soul-crushing ‘no’.

A year after this, Lyons, seeing a chance to increase the one-year window, testified at the Charter Review Commission’s two public hearings. The commission, apparently moved by Lyons’ advocacy, decided to increase the one-year limit to two. The commission also allowed Lyons request for a ten-day cure period to remedy or fix signatures deemed unsatisfactory or insufficient after they’ve been submitted. 

If Issue 19 passes it will squash so-called weaselly citizen-initiated monopolies, but it will also increase the signature gathering period from one year to two, while also offering citizens a chance to fix any questionable signatures post submission.

“In conclusion, we started with recommendations to our City Charter that would have made it more difficult for citizen initiatives to make the ballot and now, through citizen advocacy, have two proposed City Charter changes which will appear on the Tuesday’s ballot that will make it easier for future initiatives to reach the ballot,” said Lyons.

Issue 20

A “yes” vote would “amend sections of the Charter pertaining to employees of the mayor and civil service.” Such as decreasing the number job bands needed (requirements for the position), removing current employee resident requirements, removing outdated language, and updating probationary rules.

Progressive activist and retired attorney Joe Sommer has been keeping a close eye on how Issue 20 came to be, and he believes it “reeks of hidden and devious purposes”. Because, in essence, if it passes, it will change the Charter to make the City’s hiring process less objective and more subjective.

One predictable outcome if Issue 20 passes, says Sommer and many others, is it will allow the Mayor’s Office to hire more “yes-men”.

What many voters are not aware of, says Sommer, is when Issue 20 was being proposed to the Charter Review Commission, the “executive director of the Civil Service Commission kept highly relevant science from the Charter Review Commission.”

“The proposed change will make it easier for city officials to hire less-qualified individuals based on cronyism, nepotism, and political patronage,” says Sommer. “But citizens are supposed to think the officials will use the power not for those purposes but solely to increase diversity. And this change is allegedly needed even though the science shows the current system more than enables the city to hire a diverse workforce.”

Issue 21

A “yes” vote would support “amending the City Charter to allow for virtual meetings for public bodies of the city; allowing a special or emergency meeting of the council to be called as provided for by the charter and ordinance of council, rather than the general laws of the state.”

The logic behind this City Charter amendment is, in the event of another pandemic shutdown, that the Mayor, City Council and other City offices can hold their meetings virtually.

The state’s Open Meetings Act requires that members of a public body be present “in person,” but that was suspended during the pandemic.

But this past July 1st, that ruling expired, and the Ohio Attorney General’s Office ordered all state public meetings to be held once again “in person.”

Once again, can this City Charter amendment be trusted if it passes? Will there be a future where a so-called “emergency meeting” by City Council approves some pay-to-play development that trashes, for instance, a metro park?

“I do not like the idea of allowing for meetings via Zoom and giving City Council the power to hold such meetings when they deem appropriate,” said Motil. “I would rather they keep with the state of Ohio’s open meetings laws.”