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Published: Wednesday, 10/10/2001

Effort to get annex law on '02 ballot questioned

BY JAMES DREW
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF

COLUMBUS - Dozens of municipalities may be breaking state law by using taxpayer dollars to place a repeal of the state's new annexation law on the ballot next year, the Ohio Township Association said yesterday.

"In a time of scarce resources, this is no way to spend resources on politics," said Jack Gregg Haught, attorney for a Columbus law firm hired by the township association.

A coalition of about 100 municipal leaders responded that it has not violated any laws by tapping tax dollars to try to put a referendum on the state's new annexation law on the November, 2002, ballot.

"Legal opinions have been issued that this is a 'valid public purpose,' because it is preserving our economic well-being," said Tom Weber, city attorney of the Columbus suburb of Gahanna, which has approved the use of $15,000 in the effort.

The skirmish broke out as about 100 municipal leaders, dubbed the "No on State Control of Property Rights" committee, are trying to gather the signatures of at least 201,085 registered voters from 44 or more counties.

If they can do so by Oct. 25, a day before the new annexation law takes effect, Ohio would hold a referendum on the bill that Gov. Bob Taft signed into law in July.

Backers of the law say it will slow some annexations, but it should encourage negotiations between municipalities and townships to prevent bitter clashes.

Critics say it will restrict development and damage efforts by township property owners to sell their land to developers.

Gene Pierce, spokesman for the coalition of municipal leaders, would not release the names of the group's members. The city of Toledo has not provided any tax dollars toward the effort, and Mr. Pierce said donors won't be disclosed until 30 days after the petitions are filed.

Tiffin Mayor Bernard Hohman said he has asked the Northwest Ohio Mayors and Managers Association to spend $1,500 to help pay for the cost of gathering signatures, but a decision has not been made.

Sylvania Mayor Craig Stough said Sylvania, which has clashed bitterly with Sylvania Township over annexation, would not provide any tax dollars for the effort and he didn't expect the mayors and managers' group would either.

"We felt putting it on the ballot would reopen the issue and we might get a worse annexation law than we have now," Mr. Stough said.

Mr. Hohman said the mayors and managers' group suggested that area developers be contacted for contributions.

Tiffin city council approved a motion to endorse the petition drive, but does not intend to spend any tax dollars, Mr. Hohman said.

Don McTigue, a Columbus attorney hired by the municipal leaders, said he had not researched whether local tax dollars could be used after the petitions are submitted to get the referendum on the ballot.

Mr. Haught, a former Ohio Elections Commission chairman, said the use of local tax dollars to underwrite a statewide ballot issue would set a new precedent.

"If legislative leaders had decided to spend millions of dollars against term limits, I'm sure they would have argued that's in the public interest," he said.

If the use of local tax dollars is not illegal, the General Assembly should consider a change in state law, said Scott Pullins, president of the Ohio Taxpayers Association.

Michael Cochran, executive director of the Ohio Township Association, said municipalities had hired "out-of-state" firms to collect petition signatures.

He said petition circulators are telling people the new law "takes away property rights, which is misleading, erroneous, and false."

"You know we love a good fight, and we'll take this on anytime and anyplace," Mr. Cochran said.

Mr. Cochran said he didn't know how much the township association planned to pay the Columbus law firm that has scrutinized the municipalities trying to put the new annexation law on the ballot, but he acknowledged that the township association receives local tax dollars through dues.



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