A petition that was signed by approximately 270 community members with the intent to amend the Washington Court House city charter won’t be on the November ballot this year but may resurface for a later vote.
Dylan Page, a local citizen who created the petition with the help of a committee of other locals, recently proposed the amendments during a city council meeting and was met with disagreement from the council members.
A charter is a legal document that establishes the boundaries, government, financial abilities, etc. for a municipality. When significant changes are made, such as switching the form of government from a city manager to a mayor, specific steps must be taken and the proposal must go on the election ballot to be voted on by city residents.
The proposed amendments would enact an elected mayor in lieu of a city manager and enact term limits for both the mayor and city council members. The mayor would be allowed to run for four terms at four years per term and the council members would be allowed to run for five terms at four years per term.
Another part of the charter amendment would require a council member to be chosen from each ward in the city, and currently there are four wards within the City of Washington Court House. Wards are geographic divisions within a city for administrative and representative purposes.
One of the concerns from the city council involved the current wards being unconstitutional, as the wards in Washington C.H. are unequal in their populations and defy the one-person one-vote rule, which holds the idea that every person’s vote should hold equal power.
Page said, “The council’s saying wards aren’t drawn to size, which I’m not disagreeing with. However, the ward elections wouldn’t happen until 2025, so the council would have six years to redraw the wards. It’s their burden to redraw wards; a charter amendment can’t redraw them.”
Although the current council has a member from each ward, Page explained those members were still elected at large. This means they were elected to represent the entire city, not just the ward they live in. What’s best for one ward may not be best for another ward, he said.
Through communicating with citizens, Page realized that “people are really upset with how they’re being represented because they don’t feel like they’re being represented.”
“That’s what the ward representation would try to fix. You would have someone responsible specifically for the community in which you live in the city and knows which issues are most important in your community—whether you live in Storybrook or Belle Aire or over on the west side. Right now you don’t have that because everyone is represented by people who represent the whole city.”
Page explained, “While I believe the petition and amendments would pass as is and it would then be effective January 1 of 2022, my main concern is the city council selects the electors that do the charter review commission.”
The charter review commission would meet in 2024 and those appointed to the commission are chosen by majority vote of the city council. “If the composition of council then is the same as it is now they could undo everything the amendments would do two years after it would become effective,” Page said.
“So it’s going to be my goal and the goal of the committee to elect people to city council this fall that support the proposed amendments we’re putting forth, support the ward-based representation and support the mayor form of government.”
“I personally would like some more diversity on council and more representative of ideology and sex and race on city council. We’re going to try to get more people that are more representative of the city as a whole,” he said.
Another goal Page and his committee are aiming for is to boost voter turnout to at least 30 percent for the city council races to show what the majority of the community does or doesn’t want.
“If we elect city council members that support the amended charter, then obviously the people support moving forward with this. If we do pick up seats, we’re going to resubmit the petition late this year or early next year.”
There will be three seats to elect to city council this November. The terms of council members Kendra Hernandez, Steven Jennings and Jim Chrisman will be expiring Dec. 31.
One concern that has been raised by residents is being “stuck” with a mayor for four years that does not do the job properly. The city mayor and council members can be removed from their seats with a recall election.
To recall an elected official in Ohio, the official must have served at least one year of their term. A petition with a statement of why the recall is wanted must be given and signatures gained. The number of signatures must equal 15 percent of the total votes cast at the most recent regular municipal election.
Once signatures have been officially verified, the recall election must be set 30-40 days from that time. For more information please visit www.ballotpedia.org/Laws_governing_recall_in_Ohio.
Currently, the city manager of Washington C.H. can be removed or suspended by a majority vote of the seven city council members.
Under the proposed amendments, the city manager position and any person(s) appointed by the city manager would be terminated. Current City Manager Joe Denen could run for mayor if he chose and the council would be unable to remove him from his position, which Page said would help give more transparency and improve the checks and balances between the legislative and executive powers.
“The Ohio constitution says I have the right to do what I’m doing, the city charter says I have the right to do what I am doing but others disagree. There’s a right reserved to the citizens to amend the charter.”
“I’d like to thank everyone who signed the petition,” said Page.
Page and the committee will be utilizing legal counsel moving forward with the proposed charter amendments.
For more information on the government of the city of Washington Court House, including a PDF of the current charter, please visit www.cityofwch.com/27/Government.
Reach Jennifer Woods at 740-313-0355.