by Richard Dell’Aquila
I cannot support Ordinance 93-2016, which was passed by Council on August 9th on a first reading emergency vote without prior debate until that evening. The ordinance will put a proposed charter change on the ballot to restrict petition circulation to residents only for certain measures. It may sound good on first impression, that is until one considers it more closely.
First, the state legislature has already spoken in this area. ORC 3503.06 requires that petition circulators must be residents of the state (except for the office of President), at least 18 years of age. So it’s a false concern to claim, as some on Council have, that the city must eliminate out of state petition circulators. The State of Ohio has already done so.
Second, such petitions must be supported by a committee of five electors, residents of the city, who must be identified on the petition. Without this committee of resident supporters, there can be no valid petition.
Third, nothing is gained by such a charter change in exchange for restricting First Amendment Rights, for example, the rights of those who pay property taxes in Seven Hills or work here but who may not be residents. After all, one of the primary founding rationales for our country is the concept, “No Taxation Without Representation.”
In Seven Hills, campaigns are difficult enough to fund and are usually staffed by small numbers of unpaid volunteers–sometimes literally at the kitchen table. This proposed charter amendment would impose a significant additional burden on the First Amendment Rights of Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Association by making it even more difficult to find those volunteers. This could lead to litigation.
And for what purpose? What is the goal of this proposed amendment? What improper conduct is it designed to eliminate? And why was it offered up now on an emergency vote without ever having been debated previously by Council? In short, what is the compelling governmental interest this proposal is designed to address, and is it drawn narrowly enough to protect that compelling interest without trampling on constitutionally protected rights?
Seven Hills has operated under the existing petition circulation structure for decades without any problem. But now, some on Council oppose the petition recently circulated by the firefighters asking the voters to approve keeping certain staffing levels at the fire station.
The Council President admitted in the Caucus meeting before the vote was taken that the petition circulated by the firefighters motivated the decision to bring up this proposed charter change. None of this would even be on the table if the fire fighters had not presented over 1400 signed petitions to Council to place that charter change on the ballot requiring 5 person staffing round the clock, 24/7 at the fire station.
Thank God that the firefighters, paramedics and EMTs, (the experts who deal with safety emergencies here) understand the danger of cutting that staffing and brought it to the attention of the residents by circulating those petitions. What does it matter that some of those firefighters are not city residents?
The five member resident committee who supported that petition drive and the residents who signed those petitions also clearly understand the need to insure their safety. This is even more critical in the middle of the night when the number of emergency calls may be down, but the gravity of those emergencies usually is far more serious.
A State of Ohio performance audit a few years ago found that the Seven Hills Fire Department operations are a model of efficiency for other similar sized communities. All our firefighters are part-time employees who receive no benefits, and they are paid hourly only for the shifts that they actually work. This is the best deal in town and we need to support them.
Whether any petition is circulated by a resident or nonresident is meaningless. The real question is whether the subject matter of that petition is supported by the community. And properly staffing the fire station is clearly supported by the community. Finally now hearing the voters, Council is at least saying the same thing with a non-binding resolution also passed on the 9th regarding minimum staffing at the fire station.
Restricting who can circulate petitions only makes it harder to find volunteers in the future without protecting any legitimate city interest. In the end, the petition process itself, promoted by a resident committee and signed by resident electors, will determine whether any particular proposal has the requisite community support to be placed on the ballot, no matter who is circulating it.
Undercutting the First Amendment Rights of Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Association is the wrong approach, especially without any valid reason for restricting those constitutionally protected rights.