The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

Local News

July 6, 2013

Committee for a New Ashtabula still has shot at changing county government

Election board says charter initiative can proceed

JEFFERSON — Ashtabula County’s Board of Elections did not block a group’s attempts to place a charter county government initiative on the November ballot.

At a meeting Friday morning, members unanimously agreed petitions gathered by the Committee for a New Ashtabula passed muster, despite a concern expressed by County Prosecutor Thomas Sartini. The organization, however, must find about 267 new signatures to replace those ruled invalid by the board.

The hearing was attended by nearly 25 people who gasped and burst into applause when the 4-0 vote was announced. Hugs quickly followed.

Robert Malinowski, committee spokesman and former county coroner, said he was very pleased by the outcome.

“I always thought we would get it on the ballot,” he said after the hearing. “I had a strong, strong feeling we would get it on the ballot.”

Malinowski also was confident the group would have no trouble finding new signatures. The committee collected more than 3,100 names in about three weeks’ time, he said.

While the timetable facing the committee is somewhat hazy, members want to have the names to  the election board  for

review by July 15, one day before the county’s Board of Commissioners is scheduled to meet and could take up the issue. It’s up to the commissioners to place the initiative on the ballot, officials have said.

Carol Lovas, election board director, said the office has been advised to tell petitioners to confer with an attorney on what they can and can’t do regarding the new petition drive. Eugene Kramer, a Euclid attorney, told the board he has volunteered to represent the committee.

Nearly 400 signatures were deemed invalid, 175 of them because the signer was not a registered voter, board members learned. Another 144 were scratched because of address conflicts, while 37 were dropped because the signature did not match.

The board made its decision despite an opinion from Sartini the presentation of a specific phrase above circulator’s statement did not meet state requirement. The phrase, “Whoever commits election falsification is guilty of a felony of the fifth degree must be “in boldface capital letters.” The phrase, as it appeared in the charter petitions, was in capital letters but not in the darker type as required by law, Sartini wrote in his opinion.

“Accordingly, it is the opinion of this office that the petitions in question do not comply with the strict mandate of Ohio Revised Code Section 3501.38(J) and are invalid,” he wrote.

Many in the audience told the board they circulated petitions no fraud was intended. Joseph Varckette, board chairman, said members never doubted that.

“Nobody is questioning the intent of the circulators,” he said.

Some in the audience urged the board not to validate the petitions on a technicality, or “legal hair-splitting,” as one person called it. Others questioned Sartini’s involvement in the matter, suspecting conflict of interest since a provision of the charter could possibly realign and impact the prosecutor’s office.

“The prosecutor would probably experience cuts in budget and staff,” said David Brown of Andover. “I think it’s inappropriate. He would be better served to recuse himself to an unaffected party.”

Catherine Colgan, an assistant prosecutor who attended the hearing, said no conflict exists per state law because there is no direct financial gain to Sartini, his office “may or may not lose some of its budget” and he is charged with serving as the election board’s legal counsel.

Some in the audience asked if its normal for the election board to confer with the prosecutor’s office on a petition-related situation, fearing politics were coming into play. The prosecutor is the board’s attorney and is routinely consulted on matters, Varckette said.

“Since the board wanted to make sure the form presented complies with (state law), it was important to seek such an opinion,” he said. “It puts us in a better position on what we have to act on.”

Board member Charlie Frye said he had spent the past few days doing legal research in the matter and believes the board has some wiggle room on the strict-versus-substantial compliance issue that confronts much election law. This election board, Frye said, “has gone the extra mile to protect voters.”

After details numerous cases that back Frye’s opinion, he summarized: “When in doubt, I would rather err on the side of voters rather than take that right (to change government) away.”

Had the board vote gone 2-2, the matter would have been handed over to the Secretary of State’s office for a final decision.

The charter initiative would replace the elected, three-member board of commissioners with an elected, seven-person council representing every section of the county. Council members would hire an administrators to handle the county’s day-to-day operations. Only Summit and Ashtabula counties have charter form of governments in Ohio.

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