A court decision could be factor in Stow charter amendments appearing on Nov. 3 ballot

LAURA FREEMAN
Reporter
Stow Mayor John Pribonic refused to sign a resolution from city council to hire outside legal counsel to challenge amendments to the city charter proposed by the Charter Amendment Commission.

STOW — Whether voters will be given the chance to vote Nov. 3 on proposed charter amendments may be decided in the legal system.

Council Aug. 6 did not approve any of the charter amendments proposed by the Charter Amendment Commission to move the November election and did not have enough votes to pass any of its own amendments to the original proposals.

The Charter Review Commission then met Aug. 7 and spent more than an hour in executive session before unanimously approving a motion to “request the administration to file an action to compel council to move the unamended proposed charter amendments forward to the ballot.”

Anticipating legal action, council on Aug. 6 passed an ordinance to hire Roetzel & Andress as outside legal counsel for advising and representation for possible litigation for council on charter sections XIX and XX, capping any expenditure at $10,000. The issue was passed 5-2.

Council President Sindi Harrison (Ward 2) said she wanted legal counsel in place while council was on break. Council is on break until Sept. 10.

“We have a conflict and disagreement on how the sections of our charter apply which was stated and shown in how these amendments were voted on,” Harrison said.

The legislation passed to hire outside legal opinion doesn’t take effect for 30 days, which would be after the Sept. 4 deadline to file charter amendments with the Summit County Board of Elections, Law director Jaime Syx said.

Syx said because city council did not pass any of the charter amendments, none will be on the ballot as of now. But the Charter Review Commission decided to pursue action against council to try to get the amendments on the ballot for the Nov. 3 election.

“That is the only way to make it to the ballot if the court orders they go on the ballot,” Syx said.

Mayor John Pribonic, who appointed the Charter Review Commission that council approved, said he made a point of not influencing or attending any of their meetings, in an open letter to the residents Aug. 12 he sent to the Stow Sentry.

Pribonic said he would not sign the resolution from council seeking legal counsel. In the letter he said “council’s actions are usurping the citizens’ rights, and I cannot stand for it.”

At council’s Aug. 6 meeting, Harrison or At-Large council member Jeremy McIntire amended each of the nine proposals, some more than once.

Syx said the amendments were in the form that came from the Charter Review Commission and recommended against amending the language. She reminded council members they had opportunities to attend Charter Review Commission meetings or bring up concerns when the commission members attended council meetings to answer questions.

McIntire said he reviewed past councils back to 1980 and said “Stow Council has always had the right to vote up or down on or amend charter amendments proposed by the charter review commission for which 83% of the voters confirmed at the March 17, 2020 Primary Election.”

McIntire said few of the amendments were “conducive to the public interest and some hurt or help current elective officials.” He also said that “for four decades charter review commissions have been proposing the same pro-elected official charter amendments.”

In his letter, Pribonic said he supported Syx and her legal opinion about the charter amendments, saying she sought advice from two former law directors and a municipal attorney who agreed with her opinion. Most council members ignored her advice and attempted to amend the charter amendments.

“The result of this action is such that of the nine amendments submitted by the Charter Review Commission, none will be decided by the voters,” Pribonic said.

He added that the Charter Review Commission members represented the city and volunteered their time and offered opportunities for council to address them in their meetings as well as council meetings. Council ignored them at the two council meetings the commission attended and refused to allow them at a third meeting.

“Through council’s actions, council is standing in the way of the people’s right to have their voices heard in these important matters,” he added.

The Charter Review Commission meets every five years with the goal to review the charter and make recommendations for clarification or change.

Commission members met weekly to review the city charter and consisted of chair John Baranek, vice chair Deborah Matz and members John Moyer, Alan Narvy, Charles Obendorf, Jennifer Snyder and Wendy Supple.

The commission submitted nine charter amendments to Stow City Council on July 23 but council did not move them out of committee until Aug. 6. 

During council’s Aug. 6 committee vote, council members Cyle Feldman (At-Large) and Christina Shaw (At-Large) voted “no” with council member Steve Hailer (Ward 3) also voting “no” on most of the amendments to the legislation. The amended ordinances passed with a majority vote and legislation was moved onto the council agenda for a vote. 

Because council had left the amendments in committee until Aug. 6, it was first reading for the proposed amendments and needed six of the seven member votes to pass. All of the amended ordinances failed, with only four votes in favor, with Feldman, Shaw and Hailer casting abstaining or dissenting votes.

Feldman said he talked with Syx and abstained because the modified amendments do not reflect the charter amendments originally put forth by the Charter Review Commission.

“We are a municipality with a Charter, and I, as an elected At-Large City Councilman, have a duty to uphold that Charter,” Feldman said. “Pursuant to Article XX of the Charter, the Charter Review Commission reviews the municipal charter every 5 years, and submits those amendments to the electors of the City of Stow. I support the right of our citizens to vote on these amendments as submitted to council with council only having the authority to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ as to the text or form of the language.”

Hailer said every five years there is a discussion about what council’s role is.

“This is the moment we need to figure that out and we need a third party,” Hailer said. “This is not something I wanted to do. Let’s get it resolved one way or the other and move on.”

The commission recommended sending nine charter amendments to the Nov. 3 ballot. The first amendment to 19.01 eliminated council’s ability to submit charter amendments and left it to Article XX; three amendments for 9.05, 6.07 and 3.07 clarified filling vacancies for the law director, finance director and mayor; amendment to 8.05 eliminated a vote by residents to give permission for the administration to discuss a regional dispatch center by repealing the section; amendments to 21.08 defined term limits; amendments to 4.02 staggered terms for council members; and amendments to 4.08 and 4.09 allowed more flexibility for council meetings. 

Gannett reporter Laura Freeman can be reached at lfreeman@recordpub.com.