The Akron City Council has again blocked a plan to let voters decide whether to eliminate primary races and make all local elections nonpartisan.
Council members this week also discussed but took no action on other election-related plans to increase the campaign donation limit, ban all contributions from political action committees and urge the state to let independents vote in local primary elections without joining a political party.
The attempts to reform how Akron elects its mayor and council, and what role political parties should play in that process, have sparked contentious debate since being introduced in early July. Most cities in Ohio and municipalities in Summit County host nonpartisan local elections, though many still rely on primaries to thin crowded ballots or hold runoff elections after the general election if no candidate gets a majority of the vote.
Councilman Bruce Kilby's plan, introduced three weeks ago, proposed trading primaries for a single, nonpartisan general election. There would be no runoff, and anyone with 50 valid signatures from Akron voters could make the ballot.
Kilby needed nine colleagues to support him. He got five. Voting not to put his plan before voters this November were Jeff Fusco, Mike Freeman, Donnie Kammer, Marilyn Keith, Tara Samples, Veronica Sims, Margo Sommerville and Rich Swirsky. Kilby and his supporters, who tried and failed last year, would have to collect signatures equal to 10% of the vote in the most recent citywide election to put the charter amendment on the ballot this year or in the future without the council's support.
Kilby never vetted his charter amendment with the city’s law department. He told a reporter that, in his 24 years on and off the city council, he’s never trusted the city’s law department to impartially review his plans. As with previous legislation, Kilby had his nonpartisan elections bill drafted by the law offices of attorney Warner Mendenhall, a two-term city councilman who has clashed with current and former mayors and regularly takes clients who sue the city.
Some colleagues were leery of voting on legislation that, if approved by voters, would alter the city’s charter but had not been reviewed by the law department. That legal review arrived Monday, setting off a series of snarky exchanges between Law Director Eve Belfance, who is appointed by Mayor Dan Horrigan, and members of the city council who question whether the law director can be impartial when her boss opposes nonpartisan elections.
At-Large Councilwoman Linda Omobien criticized Belfance for taking three weeks to offer a “limited” professional opinion that raised “numerous legal concerns.” Omobien asked if the law department, which could not perform a full analysis in three weeks, should have “farmed out” the work to private attorneys.
“I find the question you ask very troubling and to some degree, again, it illustrates a fundamental issue that the law department faces,” Belfance said, noting that Kilby never consulted her office, as others do before crafting laws.
“I really take exception to the suggestion that this has been sitting or that there hasn’t been prompt action,” Belfance said after Omobien and others had a chance to read her two-page legal review.
“And I take exception to your response,” Omobien replied. "... This continues to be a real concern whether we have a legal department that represents us or not."
“I take exception to that," Belfance fired back. "I take great exception and it’s very offensive because I know each and every person [in] the law department is working hard for this body."
“I appreciate your exception,” Omobien continued. “But I take exception to that as well, because there is no reason that we cannot have dedicated legal time to draft legislation that we [as council] want when we want it.”
Belfance's review pointed out that, if council and voters approved Kilby’s plan, ward council candidates could get signatures from anywhere in the city to represent their local neighborhoods. The plan also overlooked three sections of the charter that deal with elections and would need to be changed if primaries are abolished.
Kilby had Mendenhall’s staff address these concerns before returning Monday night with an amended proposal. “It’s amazing, when you have someone who is motivated, how fast they can do it,” Kilby said, taking a shot at the city’s legal department.
Omobien stood at the end of the meeting, after Kilby's plan failed, to say that this would not be the last attempt to create nonpartisan primaries in Akron. She and Councilman Russ Neal said independent voters, who make up the majority of Akron, should have a more direct say in who leads their city.
In other election-related business, the city council decided to wait until after the August legislative recess to take up Councilwoman Samples' resolution urging Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose and the General Assembly to change state law so that independents can vote for partisan candidates in primaries. A spokesperson for LaRose said he's "skeptical of the policy, but has encouraged [Samples] to work with state legislators to further vet the matter.”
The council also took time on Neal’s plan to increase campaign contributions limits from $500 to $750 for ward candidates and $750 to $1,000 for citywide candidates, as Councilman Fusco has wanted, in exchange for a ban on PAC money.
Since the plan was introduced two weeks ago, Fusco has noted that the legislation would block unions and possibly local nonprofit groups that give to city candidates or causes because the ordinance makes no distinction between super PACs and dark money groups that dominate national politics and political action committees that give smaller amounts locally.
Neal has said his legislation is meant to mute groups like Partners Advancing Our Future, a group of local business leaders that spent $484,142 in 2015 to elect Mayor Dan Horrigan.
Skeptics of the plan question whether it runs afoul of free speech rights guaranteed in the First Amendment or campaign laws.
Reach Doug Livingston at email@example.com or 330-996-3792.