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Court News Ohio

Meigs County Charter Issue Must Be Placed on Ballot

The Meigs County Board of Commissioners must place a proposed county charter amendment on the Nov. 8 general election ballot, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled today.

In a 4-3 per curiam opinion, the Supreme Court determined that the county commissioners wrongfully delayed adopting a resolution in July 2015 that would have placed the petition sought by the Meigs County Home Rule Committee on the November 2015 ballot.

The Court reversed a decision by the Fourth District Court of Appeals and granted the committee a writ of mandamus to compel the commissioners to accept the Meigs County Board of Elections’ conclusion that the petition had enough signatures to earn a spot on the ballot. The action does not guarantee the proposal will actually be on November’s ballot. The Court clarified the Ohio Secretary of State has the discretion, not the commissioners nor the board of elections, to determine if the petition is valid, and that it will not “intrude into the process before the secretary has had a chance to exercise his discretion.”

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Terrence O’Donnell wrote that the board of elections missed the deadline for providing the required information to the county commissioners and the Fourth District was justified in denying the writ.

Commissioners Rejected Board’s Submission
The committee circulated a petition proposing Meigs County adopt a charter and submitted it to the board of elections in June 2015. Following R.C. 307.94, the board was required to submit a report to the county commissioners at least 120 days before the next general election “certifying” whether the petition was valid or invalid, and if invalid, the reasons for its invalidity, and if the petition has a sufficient number of valid signatures.

The board sent a letter to the commissioners on July 2, four days before the 120-day deadline, stating the petition was examined and the required amount of signatures was sufficient. It informed the commissioners that they needed to adopt a resolution certifying the petition to the board.

On July 9, three days after the 120-day deadline, the commissioners sent a letter to the board stating its July 2 letter was insufficient because the board did not attach “a certificate from the board of elections” regarding the validity of the signatures and nothing in the letter certified the validity of the petition itself. The commissioners tabled a vote on the certification until July 14. The day before the vote, the board sent another letter to the commissioners stating that it verified the signatures and voted “as to form on the face of the petition” and found it was valid. The commissioners determined because the board did not act by July 6 in validating the petition, it failed to meet the deadline and it did not certify the issue for the November 2015 ballot.

Committee Seeks Writ
The committee sought a writ of mandamus from the Fourth District, which the appeals court denied. The committee appealed to the Supreme Court seeking placement on the next general election ballot, November 2016.

The Court’s opinion explained the pivotal issue is whether the July 2 letter from the board to the commissioners met the requirements of R.C. 307.94. The Court indicated that the Fourth District rejected the commissioners’ claim that the board needed to “certify” the number of sufficient signatures, and held that the letter satisfied that requirement.

The Fourth District agreed with the commissioners that the board did not certify the validity of the petition itself by the deadline, which the Supreme Court found was an error. R.C. 307.94 does not mandate specific language the board must use to certify the validity of a county-charter petition, the Court wrote. It determined the letter’s plain intent was to certify the validity and sufficiency of signatures of the petition, which would prompt the commissioners to take the next step and adopt a ballot resolution.

The Court noted that even if the first letter was insufficient, and the board ultimately found the petition valid — and if the delay is not the fault of the initiative’s supporters — then a writ of mandamus should place the matter on the ballot.

“Any other result would be unfair and thwart the constitutional right of initiative,” the Court wrote.

The commissioners argued that the Court’s order to place the initiative on the November ballot would deny opponents the chance to file a protest, but the Court rejected the contention because the commissioners have not explained how opponents are prevented from protesting.

The Fourth District also agreed with the commissioners’ claim that it did not need to certify the petition for the ballot because of the Court’s 2015 State ex rel. Walker v. Husted decision. In Walker the Court affirmed the right of the secretary of state to invalidate a county charter initiative on the grounds that the proponents did not propose a form of county government. The commissioners maintain the Meigs County Home Rule Committee petition was almost identical to the one in Walker and if the commissioners certified it for the ballot, the board of elections would be obligated to deny placing it on the ballot based on the Walker decision.

The Court found the commissioners’ argument was “misplaced,” noting the Walker case had nothing to do with the steps a board of elections must take to certify an issue. The Court explained the commissioners’ role is “a purely ministerial function,” which does not include evaluating the substance of the county-charter petition. The board of elections has the duty to determine the validity of the petition and its discretion is limited to evaluating the form of the petition to assure it meets state law, not the substance of what is being proposed to the voters.

The Court added it is not a foregone conclusion that Secretary of State Jon Husted will invalidate the Meigs County initiative petition for the same reasons that he invalidated the petition in Walker.

“The record before the court is insufficient to determine whether the proposed Meigs County charter is identical in all relevant respects to the one at issue in Walker,” the Court wrote. “More importantly, even if the two charters do appear to be the same, the significance of Walker is that it affirmed the secretary of state’s discretionary authority to decide whether certain measures belong on the ballot.”

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Judith Ann Lanzinger, Judith L. French, and William M. O’Neill concurred with the opinion.

Elections Board Missed Deadline
In his dissent, Justice O’Donnell noted R.C. 307.94 mandates that the board both certify the petition and the signatures before the 120-day deadline. The board’s initial July 2 letter did not certify the validity of the petition.

“In a July 13, 2015 letter, the board of elections attempted to correct its omission, but that letter did not meet the 120 day statutory deadline,” he wrote.

Thus, in his view the Meigs County Board of Commissioners properly rejected the petition.

Justices Paul E. Pfeiffer and Sharon L. Kennedy concurred in Justice O’Donnell’s dissent.

2015-1719. State ex rel. Meigs Cty. Home Rule Commt. v. Meigs Cty. Bd. of Commrs., Slip Opinion No. 2016-Ohio-5658.

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