Sunday, November 11, 2001

Cities donate toward annexation law repeal

Townships crying foul over use of public funds for campaign

The Associated Press

        COLUMBUS — Several Ohio cities have given money to a petition drive aimed at repealing a new state law giving townships more voice in annexations.

        Joyce Bushman, city manager in suburban Pickerington and one of the leaders in the effort, said about 30 municipalities have donated about $250,000.

        She said Columbus City Council has given $20,000. Besides Pickerington, other central Ohio cities contributing include Dublin, Gahanna, New Albany, Obetz and Westerville.

        If organizers collect enough valid signatures, the issue would go on the November 2002 ballot.

        The group has collected 225,824 signatures. It needs 201,256 of them to be valid for putting the measure on the ballot, said James Lee, a spokesman for the Ohio secretary of state's office.

        Columbus City Council President Matt Habash said suburban officials asked the city to chip in. Five City Council members sent a letter last month to Ms. Bushman pledging their support.

        The money came from City Council's budget, said Melinda Swan, council chief of staff. The council does not have to vote to spend $20,000 or less.

        Mr. Habash said there was no attempt to avoid a public vote on the money.

        “We sent out a public letter,” Mr. Habash said. “It's public information.”

        Taxpayer lawsuits were filed last month against Pickerington and Westerville to stop the use of public funds to promote the repeal.

        Attorney J. Gregg Haught, who represents the plaintiffs in both cases, said he expects similar lawsuits to be filed against other communities.

        Mr. Haught, who also represents Ohioans for Fair Annexations, a coalition put together in part by the Ohio Township Association, described the donations as “a substantial amount of money.”

        The township association believes using public funds to fight the annexation law is illegal.

        “Fundamentally, governments in Ohio authorize money to spend only for public purposes,” Mr. Haught said. “Referendum is a right reserved for the people.

        “A purpose like this is a private purpose,” he said of the attempt to repeal the law.

        Attorney Don McTigue, who represents the No on State Control of Property Rights committee, said city legal directors and attorneys have studied state law to make sure contributing to the effort was legal.

        “It serves a municipal purpose,” Mr. McTigue said, noting that the annexation law affects a city's growth.

        Mr. McTigue said no public money can be used once the issue is on the ballot.

        The law generally gives townships more input into annexation proceedings, requires cities to provide certain services to annexed land within specific time periods and reimburses townships for lost revenues.

        The Ohio Municipal League has taken a neutral position on the petition drive, said its deputy director, John Mahoney.

        Mr. Mahoney said the league had opposed the law, but some cities had concerns about donating public money to the petition drive.


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