Local charter issues rarely raise much of a fuss.
That’s not the case, though, with Akron’s charter amendment on the Nov. 6 ballot.
The Issue 3 campaign has included yard signs around the city for and against it, an Ohio elections commission complaint, a canceled meeting that forced opponents to meet on the sidewalk and impassioned speeches during Akron City Council and community meetings from those on each side of the issue.
Depending on which side you ask, the issue either would protect the political interests of Akron’s most powerful leaders or save money and make city government run more smoothly.
The charter amendment, proposed by Akron Mayor Don Plusquellic and Council President Marco Sommerville, is another attempt to increase the terms for the 10 ward council members from two to four years, which is a change voters previously have rejected. This time, the terms boost has been paired with two money-saving changes.
The amendment eventually would make it so that all of Akron’s elected officials are on the ballot at the same time, which would eliminate the need for off-year elections. Plusquellic and Sommerville said this would save $150,000 to $200,000 per election no longer needed. The amendment also would limit the amount of raises council members and the mayor receive to the average amount awarded that year in the private sector, as determined by the U.S. Department of Labor Statistics.
Andrae Long, a newcomer to the local political scene, is leading the charge against Issue 3.
While Long’s name might not be familiar, his backers and advisers probably are: Ernie Tarle, the only Akron councilman recalled from office, who has often bumped heads with Akron’s administration; state Rep. Zack Milkovich, Tarle’s good friend; Akron Councilman Bruce Kilby, who tried unsuccessfully in the Ohio Supreme Court to challenge the wording of Issue 3; and Warner Mendenhall, an Akron attorney who led the unsuccessful recall attempt against Plusquellic in 2009.
Long, 26, is an independent contractor working with youth at Project Ujima, a Buchtel-cluster community-engagement program. He acknowledged that his list of backers might deny him more broad-based support, but he says they have been the only ones willing to fund his cause and offer him advice. He said he went to Tarle about his desire to fight the charter amendment and Tarle suggested he form a political action committee — he did so, calling it the Citizen Action PAC — so he could accept donations and in-kind contributions.
“I didn’t know what a PAC was,” Long said in a recent interview.
Long has raised about $2,300, with most going to purchase about 1,000 yard signs. The light blue and white signs read: “Four-year terms = Bad Government. No on 3. No Council Raises.”
Citizens to Keep Akron Strong, the PAC supporting Issue 3, challenged the last line of those signs, filing a complaint with the Ohio Elections Commission. The commission found probable cause that the wording was a violation and set a hearing for Thursday.
“That’s what they want, is for you to be confused,” Sommerville said of the sign wording.
Long said his group didn’t intend to mislead with the signs, only to express its opinion on the charter amendment. He thinks Akron council members don’t need any raises because they already make enough.
“This is political cover to legitimize their raises,” he said. “They don’t need legislation to limit their raises. They should stop giving raises.”
Long and other opponents of the issue think it is politically motivated because it would have the net result of ending the ability of at-large council members to run against the mayor by putting all of the municipal races at the same time. Councilman-at-large Mike Williams unsuccessfully challenged Plusquellic from a protected seat in last year’s election.
“They’re lying to push their own agendas,” Long said of amendment proponents. “There’s a special place somewhere for people who do such things.”
The opponents also think putting ward council members on four-year terms, rather than two-year terms, would make them less accountable to voters.
Sommerville, a ward councilman who long has been in favor of increasing the terms for ward council, points out that Akron’s at-large council members and many other council members locally and across the state have four-year terms.
“I am pro four-year terms,” he said. “It’s just a better way of doing business. I’ve talked to other council members who have gone from two years to four years, and [they] say it is a lot better. You can move the city forward.”
Sommerville argues this change isn’t about him or Plusquellic, but is about making Akron better. He thinks ward council members spend too much time campaigning on two-year terms and are leery of making tough choices in the second year.
Opponents of the charter issue have run into some problems while they’ve been campaigning against it.
Long scheduled a meeting at his church that his pastor canceled after receiving a call from someone who suggested hosting the meeting might not be a good idea. Long and the 15 people who had showed up met on the sidewalk across from the church.
The next week, Long was scheduled to speak at a town hall meeting Milkovich was holding. When they arrived, the community center was closed, leaving those gathered, including several senior citizens, outside until someone with the community center could be reached to open the facility. (The community center said a new employee forgot to open the center for the meeting.)
Long spoke at a town hall meeting Milkovich held last Wednesday without any problems. He will speak at another meeting Milkovich will host at 6 tonight at Ellet Community Center, 2449 Wedgewood Drive.
Milkovich, who said he opposes the charter amendment, has invited council members to attend his meetings to discuss the issue. Councilman Russel Neal, who supports the issue, spoke at Milkovich’s meeting last week.
“We want to provide both sides and let the people decide,” said Milkovich, D-Akron.
Long and Tarle regularly have spoken during the public comment period of Akron council meetings to urge people to vote against Issue 3.
Long always begins his remarks by saying he’s a “concerned citizen trying to figure it out.” He’s had Tarle and others videotape his remarks, which are on YouTube, along with another video showing Long rapping at Musica a few years ago. (Long’s ambition at the time was to be a rapper. He now wants to practice reiki, a Japanese healing technique.)
Long, buoyed by recent indirect support for his cause, including a Beacon Journal editorial against the issue, is hoping the amendment will fail and that this will serve as momentum for other topics he would like to tackle through citizen-led petition drives.
Topping his list are finding ways to address Akron’s sewer rates, which are expected to rise dramatically over the next several years because of a federal environmental lawsuit, and finding jobs for people with only high school diplomas.
Long said he doesn’t hold political ambitions, though some have suggested he should run for Akron council next year.
If the amendment fails, Sommerville said council would continue as it has been.
“We will work this year and, next year, nothing will happen,” he said. “It’s up to the people to decide.”