Brecksville suppresses will of voters over transparency

October 2, 2012
David Witt, Cleveland Plain Dealer Op Ed

Imagine, for a moment, an alternative life. Imagine yourself a member of the Brecksville City Council, working late into the night on a proposed piece of legislation. Words are exchanged between you and your colleagues -- point and counterpoint -- moving toward an actual vote on the legislation, when, suddenly, a group of men force their way into the council chamber. You demand an explanation. They tell you they are the Thought Police and that they have a court order requiring you to cease and desist from discussing further the proposed legislation. It seems you and your colleagues have crossed a line and are talking about something you have no business talking about.

Preposterous? Kafkaesque? Of course. But something very similar is actually happening in suburban Brecksville, something that could have an impact across the state of Ohio. And to make matters worse, City Council is not the victim; it is the driving force behind suppressing a public vote.

Let me explain: A few months ago, Rose and Jack Petsche, Brecksville residents, decided, in the wake of the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United, that they were mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. Citizens United, you will recall, removes restrictions on campaign finance and has given rise to the onslaught of PAC advertising that has bombarded the airwaves. The Petsches recognized that most reform begins at the grass-roots level, and so they created an organization called Brecksville Citizens for Transparent Politics. They crafted an initiative petition intending to force a public vote that advocated a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. But they recognized that campaign financing is both a local and national issue. The petition provided for the establishment of a biannual Democracy Day in Brecksville where, via a public hearing, the mayor, at least one member of council and the community would examine the impact of local political contributions on local policymaking. The proposed legislation also requires the mayor to inform elected officials at the state and national levels of the passage of the initiative.

The Petsches collected the thousand-plus signatures necessary to get the issue on the ballot. Then a strange thing happened. Using taxpayer money, the city of Brecksville filed a protest with the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections, arguing that campaign finance is not a matter for local legislative scrutiny. They relied on a provision of the Ohio Constitution that limits municipal initiatives to matters within the control of the municipality. In essence, the city was saying we ought to focus our attention on things like picking up the garbage and land-use ordinances. Brecksville Citizens countered that such things are important, but that understanding the way political contributions might be influencing decision-making was equally important.

The city's position did not gain traction with the board of elections, where two members voted in favor of the protest and two against. The matter then went to Ohio's secretary of state, who decided in favor of Brecksville Citizens, agreeing that scrutiny of campaign finance was a legitimate interest of city government.

You would have thought that was the end of it, but Brecksville City Council elected to plow forward. Again using taxpayer dollars, the city filed for a writ of mandamus or, in the alternative, prohibition with the Ohio Supreme Court. Council remains determined to keep this issue from the voters of Brecksville. The matter is likely to be resolved within the next several weeks, before the presidential election.

A decision in favor of the city of Brecksville would have disastrous consequences. First, it would turn the relationship between the legislature and the judiciary on its head. It would mean that the Ohio Supreme Court, and perhaps even quasi-judicial agencies such as the board of elections, could function as Thought Police, derailing potential citizen-initiated legislation on constitutional grounds, even before that legislation makes its way to the ballot box. Secondly, it would mean issues that have a blend of local, state and national impact, such as campaign finance and oil- and gas-well drilling, would be off-limits for purposes of citizen initiatives.

Whatever you think of Citizens United, that is no longer the point. The initiative process is, itself, in peril.

All of this serves as a cautionary tale. How is it that democracies wither and die? Sometimes, it involves tanks rolling across frontiers silencing the masses. But the more subtle danger is this: well-intended individuals in positions of power denying citizens the right to vote because they, the leaders, think they know better.

David Witt is an attorney, mediator and 30-year resident of Brecksville.


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