Brecksville battles to keep special-interest group's issue off ballot

September 20, 2012
Harlan Spector

BRECKSVILLE, Ohio — The city of Brecksville is locked in what could be a precedent-setting legal battle over whether voters can force the local government to support a movement to abolish unlimited corporate and union spending on political campaigns.

A citizens group collected 1,055 signatures to place an initiative on the November ballot that would require city officials to support a constitutional amendment aimed at quashing a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling known as Citizens United.

But city leaders objected, contending that state elections law limits ballot issues to matters which a city has authority to control. Last week, the city asked the Ohio Supreme Court to keep the issue off the ballot.

The ballot issue, and a similar measure on the ballot in Newburgh Heights, are part of a nationwide push to overturn the landmark Citizens United ruling, which said corporations and unions have a First Amendment right to unlimited spending on political campaigns.

Move to Amend, a group lobbying for the constitutional amendment, has spurred local legislation across the country. The group's website says more than 300 local measures have been passed or are in progress.

The Brecksville initiative calls for the city to host an annual "democracy day," with a public hearing to gather views on the impact of political contributions of corporations, unions, PACS and SuperPACS on the city.

The mayor would then have to send letters to state and federal legislative leaders saying Brecksville residents support a constitutional amendment stating that corporations are not people with First Amendment rights, and that regulating political contributions does not limit political speech.

City leaders asked the Ohio Supreme Court to intervene after Secretary of State Jon Husted ruled that the ballot issues in Brecksville and Newburgh Heights are valid. Husted issued his opinion to break a deadlock at the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections, where board members split, 2-2, on whether the issues should go on the ballot.

The board's two Democrats voted in favor of putting the issues on the ballot. The two Republicans opposed the move.

Rose Petsche, who heads the Brecksville citizens group, criticized city leaders for opposing the initiative and for spending thousands of dollars to take the case to the state high court.

"The city never took the time to reconsider their position in light of the [Husted] decision," Petsche said in an e-mail. "It appears the city gave our law director a blank check to try and defeat our grass roots movement."

Brecksville officials argued that they oppose the ballot issue because it deals with a federal matter that the city has no authority to control.

Though the issue is on the federal level, Husted dismissed the city objections, saying the city does have the authority to hold a public hearing and correspond with lawmakers.

Council President Gregory Skaljac said the initiative sets a troubling precedent that would force the city to take up the cause of other special-interest groups.

"If we don't fight this and allow it to go on the ballot, we feel we're opening a Pandora's box," he said. "They're attempting to use the local city government to be the mouthpiece for their movement."

The Cuyahoga County Prosecutor's Office also weighed in, with a written opinion agreeing with Brecksville.

In its appeal to the Ohio Supreme Court, Brecksville said the elections board provided Husted with an incomplete transcript of the hearing on the ballot issues. The transcript inexplicably omitted an acknowledgment by board member Sandy McNair of a potential conflict of interest.

McNair, one of the Democrats on the county elections board, said during the hearing that as Brecksville Democratic leader, he knows the petition organizers in the suburb and had received e-mails from them.

McNair said in an interview that he voted on the ballot issues only after consulting with the Ohio Secretary of State's office, the elections board attorney, the Ohio Ethics Commission and the Ohio Elections Commission.

"I called every organization I could call that could deal with this issue, and none of them said this was a problem," he said. "For them [Brecksville officicals] to say this was crucial evidence. . . I think is really gilding the lilly."

McNair added there is no clear legal precedent to keep the issue off the ballot.

"So our job is to put it on and let the public decide."

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