Court orders Meigs to place 2015 charter on ballot

By Michael Johnson - [email protected]

POMEROY — The Ohio Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled the Meigs County Board of Commissioners must place a proposed Home Rule charter amendment on the Nov. 8 general election ballot.

But the court was quick to note that the opinion is no guarantee it will actually make it on the ballot.

In a 4-3 opinion, the Supreme Court said the Meigs County Board of Commissioners wrongfully delayed adopting a measure July 2015 that would have placed a petition by the Meigs County Home Rule Committee on the November 2015 ballot.

But the court added that Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted could have a chance to weigh in on the matter, stating, “We will not intrude into the process before the secretary has had a chance to exercise his discretion.”

The initiative is similar to one in Athens County — known by legal jargon as State ex rel. Walker v. Husted — in which Husted ruled would not be on the ballot. The Ohio Supreme Court upheld that decision, but did not agree with Husted’s entire ruling.

In Walker, the Supreme Court affirmed the right of the secretary of state to invalidate a county charter initiative on the grounds that the proponents did not propose a form of county government.

In the Meigs County case, the Home Rule Committee gathered signatures in an effort to put a community rights county charter initiative on the Nov. 3, 2015, ballot. The proposed charter, according to the committee, would recognize the right of county residents to initiate a referendum, which also includes a ban on fracking infrastructure projects to dispose of fracking waste in Meigs County, as well as using water sources in Meigs to aid in the process.

The attempt to place the initiative on the ballot became controversial when its inclusion on the November ballot was denied due to technical issue during the filing process. Ballot initiatives, according to the Ohio Revised Code, must be submitted to the board of elections by the 120th day before a general election, in this case June 26, 2015. The Home Rule initiative was submitted to the elections board on June 24, 2015 — two days before the deadline.

For the petition to be approved, the board of elections was to provide the Meigs County Commissioners a certification of both the signatures and validity of the petition itself, along with a report. This information was to be delivered to the commissioners no later than 120 days before the general election, which would have been July 6, 2016.

The commissioners received a letter from Meigs County Board of Elections Director Becky Johnston and Deputy Director Meghan Lee on July 2, 2015, advising them the petition had been filed with the board of elections on June 24, and that at least 567 signatures (the minimum required amount) on the petition were valid.

On July 9 — three days after the 120-day deadline — the commissioners sent a letter to the elections board stating it received and discussed the letter at the July 9 meeting and had identified three deficiencies: the letter did not certify whether the petition had sufficient valid signature, nothing concerning the validity of the petition itself was included; and there was no certification from the elections board showing its certification.

The commissioners tabled a vote on the certification until July 14. The day before the vote, the elections board sent another letter to the commissioners stating it verified the signatures and voted “as to form on the face of the petition” and found it was valid. According to the Supreme Court opinion, the commissioners determined because the board did not act by July 6 in validating the petition, it failed to meet the deadline and it did not certify the issue for the November 2015 ballot.

The Home Rule committee took the matter to court, where last September, the Fourth District Court of Appeals ruled the Meigs County Board of Elections “did not certify the petition and the signatures within the 120-day time period as required.” The decision went on to say that the commissioners have no clear legal duty to certify a petition to the Board of Elections until it receives a timely certification that the petition is valid and that there are sufficient valid signatures.

Tish O’Dell, Ohio community organizer for the Home Rule committee, declined immediate comment on Tuesday’s ruling because she had not yet had a chance to read it and was traveling.

Meigs County Commission President Tim Ihle was out of the office Tuesday and had not yet read the opinion, but said he and his fellow commissioners, Randy Smith and Mike Bartrum, would discuss it and have more to say Wednesday. The commission formally meets as a body at 11 a.m. Thursday.

In its opinion, the Supreme Court noted that even if the first letter was insufficient and the board ultimately found the petition valid — and if the delay is not the fault of the initiative’s supporters — then a court order should place the matter on the ballot.

The commissioners maintain the Meigs County Home Rule Committee petition was almost identical to the one in Walker and if the commissioners certified it for the ballot, the board of elections would be obligated to deny placing it on the ballot based on the Walker decision.

The Supreme Court found the commissioners’ argument was “misplaced,” noting the Walker case had nothing to do with the steps a board of elections must take to certify an issue. The court explained the commissioners’ role is “a purely ministerial function,” which does not include evaluating the substance of the county-charter petition.

The board of elections has the duty, the court said, to determine the validity of the petition and its discretion is limited to evaluating the form of the petition to assure it meets state law, not the substance of what is being proposed to the voters.

By Michael Johnson

[email protected]

Reach Michael Johnson at 740-446-2342, ext. 2102, or on Twitter @OhioEditorMike.

Reach Michael Johnson at 740-446-2342, ext. 2102, or on Twitter @OhioEditorMike.