The group behind a Norton ballot issue is facing the scrutiny of the Ohio Elections Commission and the Summit County Prosecutor’s Office for alleged election law violations.
The Ohio Elections Commission will hold a probable cause hearing Thursday on a complaint Norton Councilman Don Nicolard filed against Citizens 4 Norton. He alleges the group failed to take required campaign steps, including forming a political action committee and filing a designation of treasurer.
On Tuesday, the Summit County Board of Elections asked the Summit County Prosecutor’s Office to look into Nicolard’s complaint against Citizens 4 Norton.
The group circulated petitions to get Issue 1 on the Aug. 6 special election ballot, a charter change that would end property tax assessments for water and sewer lines, end tap-in fees and cap water and sewer bills for residents at $35 a month, with a maximum increase of 2 percent a year.
The city also would be required to pay off about $3.3 million in interest and principal for bonds now funded through individual property-owner assessments. All future projects would be funded solely through the city’s general fund.
City officials have said the charter amendment would consume more than half of Norton’s $6 million operating budget and could trigger significant cuts in services and result in layoffs, including police. Proponents of the amendment say assessments are a big financial burden for residents, some of whom are billed $10,000 or more for their share of water and sewer construction. They argue the city should find another way to pay for the improvements rather than relying on property owners.
Nicolard, Norton’s Ward 2 councilman, says Citizens 4 Norton has violated several state laws pertaining to electioneering, collection of money to influence an election and making false statements. He says a member of the group bragged in a June news release about having collected $1,866. Fliers circulated by the group stated “paid for by Citizens 4 Norton.”
As of Tuesday, the group hadn’t submitted paperwork to the Summit County elections board forming a PAC or designating a treasurer.
“The fact of the matter is they did not file certain forms they had to file last year and did not file them this year,” Nicolard said. “They had already broken the law before they thought about it. They disseminated information, collected and spent money without being a legal PAC.”
Tim Gorbach, chairman of the elections board, said Nicolard told him Citizens 4 Norton has filed paperwork with the Ohio Secretary of State’s Office to be a nonprofit limited liability corporation and might think that, because of this, it doesn’t have to comply with campaign finance requirements.
“That seems to me to not be accurate,” Gorbach said.
Gorbach said an individual may raise money and put a sign in his or her yard supporting or opposing an issue and not be required to form a committee. He said this might not be the case for a group.
“We need the prosecutor to look at this matter ... and tell us what action to take,” elections board member Alex Arshinkoff said.
People of Progress, a group opposed to Norton’s charter amendment, submitted paperwork to the Summit County elections board to form a political action committee and a treasurer designation. The group had raised $2,250 as of a report filed July 17, according to the board.
Warner Mendenhall, the Akron attorney representing Citizens 4 Norton, says the group didn’t need to file paperwork with the elections board because it isn’t raising money and is simply educating residents about the charter amendment. He said individuals have contributed and spent money on the effort, which they are permitted to do.
“Any ad hoc group can raise money for whatever purpose it wants,” he said.
Mendenhall said this is more of a First Amendment issue than an elections law question.
“They can argue for a different way of financing sewers,” he said. “Mr. Nicolard just doesn’t like what these people are saying. This is basic stuff.”