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Husted tosses county reform petitions

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ELYRIA — An effort to remake the structure of county government was derailed Friday when Ohio Secretary of State John Husted tossed the petitions.

In a four-page letter, Husted declared the petitions fundamentally flawed for asking two distinctly different questions that would provide different outcomes if approved.

The two questions are: “Shall this proposed County Charter be Chosen?” and “Shall a County Charter Commission be Chosen?”

“The distinction in wording may appear minor on first blush, nevertheless, in this case, the difference in wording amounts to a substantial legal difference,” Husted wrote. “Because these two questions ask for distinctly different outcomes, are governed by separate provisions of law, and have different signature thresholds, there is nothing in Ohio law that permits a petition to submit these two questions simultaneously to the voters of a county.

“To permit two incompatible questions on a single petition would be misleading, unauthorized, and would be impossible to implement in a single ballot issue,” Husted concluded.

Backers of the proposal — which wanted to retire the three-commissioner format and replace it with a seven-district county council led by a county executive — had survived earlier hurdles, including initially collecting too few signatures and then a tie vote by the Lorain County Board of Elections split along party lines over whether the petitions provided enough information to those who signed them.

The tie vote came about even though Assistant County Prosecutor Gerald Innes, who represents the Board of Elections, deemed the petitions invalid for failing to include pertinent information, including an explanation of the districts and the issue Husted ultimately found too problematic — that two separate questions were being asked related to two separate parts of the law.

“I’m sorry this is one of the worst petitions I’ve seen in

25 years. To come up and make excuses is just not right,” Innes said at the meeting. “It’s a bad petition — that’s all there is to it.”

Local attorney and activist Gerald Phillips also intervened, filing a protest July 27 with Husted citing the same concerns Innes’ cited.

Regardless, Husted broke the tie Aug. 1 in favor of the Republicans and validated the petitions at that point.

After that decision, County Coroner Dr. Stephen Evans — a Republican whose office would switch from an elected position to an appointed one under the proposal — filed his own protest.

The protests from Evans and Phillips and subsequent legal briefs filed supporting their positions forced Husted to reconsider the matter, he wrote.

In a phone call Friday, Evans said he was happy with this outcome.

“I don’t think their proposal, the way it was written, was a good thing for voters in Lorain County,” Evans said. “It would have made the coroner’s role, which in this case would have been the medical examiner’s role, into a political appointment. With the coroner being one of the top legal authorities in the county, it should not answer to a political appointment kind of position.”

Anthony Giardini, a member of the Board of Elections and the chairman of the Lorain County Democratic Party Executive Committee, said Husted made the right decision.

“When you’re signing the petition, you’re not saying you’re for or against, but what you’re saying is I’m in favor of putting this on the ballot. But when you signed this petition, which question are you saying you wanted on the ballot? Right at the get-go, that petition was flawed,” Giardini said.

Helen Hurst, a member of the Board of Elections and chairwoman for the Lorain County Republican Party, did not return calls for comment.

Phillips also did not return calls for comment, nor did proponents of the petition, Dave Moore, Jeff Riddell and Mark Stewart.

In an email sent Friday after Husted’s decision was announced, Phillips promised to have clean, accurate petitions prepared and circulated to appear on a ballot in 2018.

Contact Jodi Weinberger at 329-7245 or jweinberger@chroniclet.com.

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