Stow residents won't vote on charter amendments this year
STOW – Voters won't see any charter amendments on the Nov. 3 ballot after the Ohio Supreme Court ruled in favor of City Council in a legal battle between council and the city's administration and Charter Review Commission.
The state's high court ruled last week against the city’s legal effort to place nine charter amendments on the ballot after council amended and then failed to approve placing any of them on the fall ballot.
The city's administration took council to court, asking justices to allow residents to vote on the changes sent to council by city's Charter Review Commission. The charter changes dealt with how vacancies are filled, the proposed regional dispatch center, term limits and council meetings, among other issues.
Law Director Jaime Syx asked the court to compel council to vote to submit the proposed amendments to the voters. As an alternative solution, the city requested the court order the Summit County Board of Elections to accept the proposed charter changes directly from the commission without council approval. The Ohio Supreme Court denied Syx’s requests on Sept. 11.
“I will always fight for the right of the citizens of Stow to vote," Syx said. "One of my obligations as the elected law director of the city is to protect the integrity of the charter review process and to ensure our citizens have a voice in that process. The Supreme Court action was the fastest and most economical option to get the amendments to the electors in time for the Nov. 3 election.”
Prior to council obtaining outside legal counsel, this action would have cost the city less than $300 in filing fees, Syx said. She added it took the court just two weeks to reach a decision as opposed to dragging the issue out over months.
Stow City Council hired legal counsel, Roetzel & Andress, and argued Syx’s position that council had a mandatory legal duty to put the charter amendments on the ballot was “flawed and inapplicable” under the language of the charter and Ohio Constitution, according to a council news release.
“I am proud that council stood its ground and was not willing to give up our rights and to protect future councils from being ‘bullied’ into believing something that was factually untrue," said Council President Sindi Harrison (Ward 2) in a written statement.
Harrison added that, in the process leading up to the filing of the lawsuit, Syx was "unwilling to discuss council's viewpoint of the charter review process or consider any alternative to her own viewpoint."
Council Vice President Jeremy McIntire said he felt Syx owed taxpayers an apology and called on her to pay the legal costs connected with the lawsuit.
In a news release issued Monday, council leaders stated they believed the court's decision ends "the 40-year debate between council and the law department on the interpretation of our charter language regarding the recommendations of the Charter Review Commission."
Stow's leader expressed his disappointment with the court's decision and said the lawsuit was not about politics.
“The intent of the Charter Review Commission is to give our citizens a voice as it relates to our charter,” said Stow Mayor John Pribonic. “We are disheartened in this decision as we believe that citizen’s voices must be heard. Our actions are 100% rooted in the protection of our citizen’s right to vote … Our Charter is very pro-council, when it was designed to be pro-citizen, and that is a shame.”
Every five years the Stow City Charter provides for a seven-member charter review commission to meet and review the charter and recommend changes to council by Aug. 1.
The commission is a bipartisan group of volunteer residents, appointed by the mayor and confirmed by council. Their proposed charter amendments are then sent to the ballot if at least two-thirds of council votes in favor of doing that.
On July 15, the charter review commission submitted nine proposed charter amendments to city council. At that time, Syx said council could review the amendments, approve or disapprove them, but could not change them.
On Aug. 6, council failed to approve sending any of the proposed changes to the ballot after making their own changes. Council did not forward any of the proposed changes to the board of elections.
Harrison and McIntire said the lack of support was the result of three council members abstaining from voting based on what Harrison called “flawed” legal advice from Syx.
“Most of the amendments made to legislation by council were immaterial to the actual recommendations and were made to fix factual and legislative errors in the legislation provided by the law department,” stated council's news release.
The charter review commission met the next day and gave approval for the city administration to file the lawsuit.
Details of court decision
The Ohio Supreme Court ruled that the city did not establish a clear legal right to have the amendments placed on the allot or a clear legal duty for council to place them on the ballot.
Although the commission voted on Aug. 7 to file the complaint, Syx did not file until Aug. 28. The court ruled that the delay was “unreasonable” and that Syx did not present a valid excuse for the delay.
Pribonic said the delay was not the administration's fault.
"Council sought outside legal counsel that would provide them with outside legal advice when they have their own legal department within the city," Pribonic said. "Council caused the delay, council cost the taxpayers money.”
On Aug. 6, council voted to seek outside legal counsel in an amount not to exceed $10,000, to defend them if a lawsuit should ensue.
“However, that legislation and contract would not take effect for 30 days after the day I sign it, which at the very earliest, would have been Sept. 4,” Pribonic said. “Council could have passed the legislation as an emergency, which would have taken effect immediately, but chose not to do so."
John Baranek, who served as chair of the charter review commission, said they drafted their amendments to the charter that would help clarify the responsibilities in the charter and help avoid possible problems in the future.
“We were pretty disappointed when council decided to amend our legislation and put their stamp on the amendments,” Baranek said.
Gannett reporter Laura Freeman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.