Testimony of Lee Brooker
Democracy Day Public Hearing
October 6, 2016 / Kent, Ohio
I'm happy to see folks here from out of town. That's what a hearing for the general public is all about. We can compare experiences, recognize commonalities, and take ideas, plans, and perspectives home to wherever.
But I want to briefly address matters pertaining specifically to Kent election law.
Up until last November, a small grassroots group with an idea for a ballot initiative for a Kent ordinance or charter amendment would have faced a daunting task in just getting enough signatures on a petition to qualify, a task which a moneyed interest could easily finance with a paid campaign staff. The Kent charter had required 10% of the entire electorate to sign a petition to bring a charter amendment to the ballot, and 15% of the entire electorate to sign such a petition for an ordinance or referendum. The standard threshold is 10% of the previous election's turnout. The onerous requirements that had been on the books created the bizarre reality that, given the unfortunately low voter turnouts that we see, just as many people would have to sign a petition just to bring an initiative to the ballot as would be needed to vote to pass the thing on Election Day! The required numbers were on a par with the number of signatures required for such petitions in Cleveland!
So, in the course of getting the charter amendment passed that requires this hearing and an official statement from the city to Congress saying that the voters of Kent in 2015 voted in favor of a constitutional amendment stating that corporations are not people and that money is not speech, we purposefully, in order to force the issue, gathered signatures well exceeding the number stated in the Ohio Constitution, but decidedly short of the number stipulated in the Kent charter. When the law department refused to put it on the ballot, we took the matter to the Ohio Supreme Court, who ruled unanimously in our favor that the stipulated signature requirements for petitions for charter amendments in Kent was unconstitutional, and that only 10% of the previous election's voters who actually voted need sign such a petition.
Separately, with little fanfare, and after no campaigning, the voters of Kent voted in favor of another charter amendment which similarly right-sizes the signature requirement for petitions to bring a local ordinance (as opposed to a charter amendment) to the ballot, again to the normal 10% of the previous election's turnout, rather than the exorbitant 15% of the entire set of registered voters, which had been on the books.
So have new power now, people! I encourage us to use it, now that a huge ground operation is no longer needed just to bring an initiative to the ballot. Those of us who worked on the Community Bill of Rights charter amendment effort in 2014 (defeated, by the way, with the use of 5000 dark dollars spent to propagandize against it) learned firsthand that gathering thousands of signatures and managing the data is a job more suited to a paid staff, which small grassroots groups can obviously not afford. Now it's no longer necessary, and it's my hope that we'll use our new power to bring progressive initiatives to the ballot in Kent starting next year. Which means starting now.