ELYRIA — Proponents of a plan to reform Lorain County government aren’t sure of their next step after Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted threw out their petitions last week, citing conflicting language that would have appeared on the November ballot.
Brian Hoagland, who was among those pushing the reform effort, said Tuesday that he and his fellow reformers have had a few conversations about what to do next but haven’t made a decision.
“I don’t think we know what we’re going to do at this point,” he said.
County Board of Elections Director Paul Adams said that Husted’s ruling is final and the only way the proponents could challenge it would be to take the matter to the courts, something Hoagland said he doubts will happen.
“We briefly talked about the (Ohio) Supreme Court, but didn’t feel like we would have won that battle,” he said.
Hoagland said that backers of the plan, which would have created seven districts for an elected county council to replace the current system of three at-large county commissioners, were disappointed in Husted’s decision, especially because of how much work they put into the plan.
Reformers came up 1,160 signatures short of the required number they needed to obtain from 7,782 registered voters in the count but had submitted an additional 4,046 signatures Friday shortly before Husted issued his ruling.
He said the reform plan was based on Cuyahoga County’s charter form of government put in place after a massive federal corruption probe led to criminal charges against Cuyahoga County officials, vendors and others. He said changes were made to improve upon it, but those changes are what led to the mistake that made them invalid.
Husted wrote in his decision that the petitions contained language from two different ways that Ohio law allows for charter forms of government to be created. One would simply impose the new form of government if approved by voters while the other would have created a county charter commission.
“It was one word in the whole petition, which is too bad,” Hoagland said. “I feel bad for the citizens of Lorain County because so many of them want this thing.”
Husted, however, wrote in his decision that the language was critical to making the petition work if voters approved it.
“The distinction in the wording may appear minor on first blush; nevertheless, in this case, the difference in wording amounts to a substantial legal difference,” he 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. That makes sense because the two distinct processes lead to different outcomes.”
Husted’s decision reversed an earlier ruling he made when he broke a party-line tie vote from the county elections board over whether flaws in the petitions were enough to keep it off the ballot. Husted had sided with his fellow Republicans in voting to leave the measure on the ballot.
Democrats had said the flaw was too confusing and also had complained that the petitions didn’t have an attached map that they argued was required so people knew what the districts were. Husted’s original decision had centered on that, and he concluded the map wasn’t necessary because those circulating the petitions had said they showed voters signing the petitions a map of the districts.
Although the backers of the plan had said it was a nonpartisan effort, county Democrats have opposed the reform plan because they contend it is designed to install Republicans in power. They also disliked that it made several elected offices, such as the county coroner, recorder and engineer, appointed positions.
County Coroner Dr. Stephen Evans, the lone Republican officeholder in county government, had also opposed the plan and had filed a protest against it with Husted’s office.
Avon Lake attorney Gerald Phillips had also filed protests and has said that while he doesn’t oppose county government reform, he didn’t like the plan put forward by Hoagland and his allies. Phillips has suggested he will put forward his own reform plan next year.
Hoagland said he and his allies aren’t sure what Phillips’ plan would entail, but he suspects it would likely include an elected county executive. He said those who wrote the petition Husted rejected want an appointed executive, similar to the position now held by county Administrator Jim Cordes. The appointed executive was one of Phillips’ chief complaints about this year’s reform effort.
Contact Brad Dicken at 329-7147