By Stephanie Warsmith
Beacon Journal staff writer
A proposed change to Akron's charter says the city may ''enter into agreements for services with other governmental agencies'' to save money.
While the language might seem innocuous to some, the Akron police union and a group opposing the city's charter amendments see a more nefarious plot: City leaders seek the new language because they want to merge the Akron Police Department and Summit County Sheriff's Office.
City leaders say there are no such plans to consolidate, and the charter change is aimed at encouraging collaboration where it makes sense.
Similar disagreements entangle each of Akron's seven charter amendments on the Nov. 2 ballot.
City leaders characterize the changes as needed revisions as proposed by the administration and charter commission during its once-a-decade review. Opponents, however, see problems and selfish motives behind every amendment.
The battle has pitted archenemies against each other in a fight reminiscent of 2009's failed recall attempt against Mayor Don Plusquellic.
On one side are Warner Mendenhall, the Akron attorney who led the recall campaign, and a coalition of other groups, many that have fought City Hall on other ballot issues. This group, which calls itself Save Our City but that Plusquellic has dubbed ''a gang of scoundrels,'' is joined by the police and fire unions, whose members have voted to oppose some or all of the charter amendments.
On the other side are Plusquellic and his administration, most of City Council, and local business leaders, who have agreed to contribute to Citizens for Akron, the group formed to fight the recall effort and that
now will lead a pro-charter amendment drive.
The result will be a campaign seldom seen with charter amendments. It will include billboards, competing Web sites, yard signs and door-to-door visits with both sides peddling their very different views on the issues.
The charter proposals on the ballot as Issues 11 to 17 feature a hodgepodge of items, including: devoting part of the income tax revenue slated for schools to safety forces; removing the campaign finance language and increasing funding limits; making it more difficult to get initiatives and referendums on the ballot; giving preference points to city residents and veterans; and allowing Akron to lease its beleaguered steam plant.
Income tax change
Issue 17 is the only amendment that didn't result from the formal charter review.
The proposal came up during contentious and still continuing negotiations between the city and its police union.
It would allow the city to use one-third of the quarter-percent income tax voters approved in 2003 to fund the Akron school district's construction project for public safety purposes for three years. The proposal also would extend the collection of the tax hike for five years, until 2038.
Finance Director Diane Miller-Dawson said the one-third of the quarter-percent would generate about $4.3 million a year and would be divided among police, fire, emergency medical services and snow removal. She said the extra funds would help the city's struggling budget but wouldn't guarantee no layoffs.
''I just can't predict the future,'' she said. ''It softens the blow.''
Miller-Dawson said the change wouldn't delay any schools from being built and would result in more being constructed. She said the five-year extension of the tax would raise an additional $60 million to $100 million that is needed to finish the district's expansive project. She said these funds are necessary because of extras like bigger classrooms the state wasn't willing to pay for and the city must cover.
The police union is supporting the amendment, and Save Our City out of deference to the union isn't taking a position on it. The Civil Service Personnel Association, an Akron union representing white-collar employees, has endorsed it.
The fire union, however, is opposed to all the proposed changes, including Issue 17.
Phil Gauer, the union's president, said this is another example of the city playing a ''shell game.'' He doesn't think the change would result in extra money for public safety.
''The city would take money out of the general fund that normally goes to police and fire and use it for other pet projects,'' he said.
City leaders are hoping to get the endorsement of the Akron school board, which is expected to discuss the issue Monday. Jason Haas, the board's president, recently spoke against the proposal.
Many opponents of the charter changes characterize them as undemocratic. Issue 12, which would make it harder to get initiatives and referendums on the ballot, riles them the most.
''You put an issue like this on the ballot to further reduce the power of citizens,'' said Patti Longville, who is among the Save Our City leaders.
The amendment would tie the required signatures to get initiatives or referendums on the ballot to the number of registered voters rather than the number of votes in the most recent municipal election.
Voters, angry at the unsuccessful and expensive attempt to oust Plusquellic, overwhelmingly approved this threshold increase for recalls last November.
City leaders say the same change is needed for initiatives and referendums to make the charter consistent. They also think the number of registered voters is a more consistent threshold than the number of votes, which can fluctuate, depending on which candidates are running and whether they face opposition.
Council members, concerned about making the threshold too difficult, lowered the signature requirement from the 10 percent the Charter Review Commission proposed to 7 percent.
Opponents think the change would make it difficult, if not impossible, to get an issue on the ballot.
Ernie Tarle, a former Akron councilman helping the Save Our City campaign, thinks the current requirements are tough enough. He has been struggling to get the required signatures for a charter amendment requiring a public speaking period during Akron council meetings. He's hoping to assemble enough to turn in before the November election, in case voters approve boosting the signature thresholds.
''If I'm successful with it, mine may be the last petition drive in the city,'' Tarle said.
One of the most sweeping amendments Issue 14 would remove campaign finance language from the charter.
The issue would require council to pass a new campaign finance ordinance within 90 days that would include higher limits for contributions.
Limits for ward council candidates would increase from $100 to $200, and at-large and mayoral candidates would go from $300 to $450.
The limit would be per election, meaning a person could donate this amount during both the primary and general elections.
Council would be required to revisit campaign finance every two years, including having public hearings.
Sixty-three percent of voters approved the campaign finance language in 1998. Many think the limits, especially after 12 years, are unrealistically low.
Opponents of the issue favor indexing the limits to inflation but didn't want them removed from the charter. They point out that the proposal sets limits for the next two years but has no guarantees beyond that.
''Then it's open season,'' said Greg Coleridge, who heads the American Friends Service Committee and was involved in the effort to get campaign limits in the charter.
Coleridge and other Save Our City members think the current language and limits have curtailed big money in campaigns and invited more candidates. They point to the 2009 Akron council race, in which 55 people ran and five new members were elected.
A charter change the administration proposed Issue 16 would allow Akron to lease its downtown steam-heat system.
The amendment would be added to a charter change approved in 2008 that forbids the city from leasing, selling or transferring any city-owned utility.
The city has been contracting with Akron Energy Systems LLC to run the plant since last September, when Akron Thermal ceased operations.
Issue 16 opponents say Akron should take control of the steam plant and have city employees working there. They say having a private company at the helm hasn't worked.
''In private hands, it has been bankrupted and cost millions,'' Mendenhall said. ''We need to have public employees running the steam plant.''
Public Service Director Rick Merolla said Akron hasn't had city employees working at the steam plant under the past several private operators. He thinks the city has the right operator now and the company might be interested in leasing the system.
''They will make an investment in the system,'' he said. ''They will be able to raise revenues again and make it profitable. The city does not have the resources to do that.''