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Special election likely next stop in effort to keep jail in downtown

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    Assistant County Prosecutor Kevin Pituch speaks during a meeting of the Lucas County Board of Elections.

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    Lucas County jail

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A ballot initiative to keep the Lucas County jail in downtown Toledo could appear before voters in a special election after all, but county officials in the meantime intend to move forward with plans to build a new $180-million jail complex in North Toledo roughly a mile from the Michigan-Ohio line.

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Lucas County jail

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A citizens group called Keep the Jail Downtown Toledo has for months fought against a county commission proposal to build a new jail  and accompanying behavioral mental health center along the 5700 block of North Detroit Avenue, near East Alexis Road. 

Keep the Jail Downtown Toledo leaders gathered signatures to get on the ballot a Toledo city charter change that would require the county’s jail remain downtown. That effort appeared all but doomed late last week when The Ohio Supreme Court ruled the matter should have gone to city council first to pass an ordinance before the initiative could move forward.

But on Tuesday Toledo City Council approved sending downtown jail charter amendment language to the Lucas County Board of Elections, whose board members just recently rejected placing the measure on the November ballot. 

Now county officials will seek guidance from the Ohio Secretary of State as to whether the vote will take place within the next 60 to 120 days as required by city charter, or possibly in May as outlined in state code.

Assistant County Prosecutor Kevin Pituch said it’s not a matter of if a special election occurs, but when. The board may consider this during its upcoming meeting in November, he said.

 “They will do what they're obligated to under the charter and under the Ohio Revised Code,” Mr. Pituch said.

However Mr. Pituch added that, even if voters approve the ballot measure, he does not believe a city-voter amendment can enforce where county officials construct a jail.

Board of election officials Wednesday did not have available an estimate on the cost of a special election.

Sean Nestor, a leader in the citizen group, said he is pleased the government is doing what it should, but regrets legal action was required to press the matter.

“Going forward, I hope that this pattern of cooperation with groups that are trying to initiate charter amendments, I would like to see more of that,” Mr. Nestor said.

Mr. Nestor requested the county halt any proposed  jail construction until the vote, but Commissioner Pete Gerken said that’s not happening.

The county owns a legal, properly zoned site along North Detroit Avenue. Leaders intend to continue their plan to build a new jail — a project that aims to improve the county’s criminal justice system — at that location, as the law permits, he said.

Before the downtown jail restriction question ever goes to the ballot, county voters in the November general election will weigh in on a 37-year, 1.37-mill tax increase request intended to fund construction at the North Toledo site.

If passed, the owner of a home valued at $100,000 would pay about $48 per year, beginning next year.

“I think the community knows a jail has to be built,” Mr. Gerken said.

Early voting for the November election began Wednesday. Election day is Nov. 6.

When first presented with the downtown jail ballot measure, the board of elections unanimously voted not to place the proposed amendment on the ballot, saying it contained provisions beyond the city's authority to enact.

But without an accompanying city council ordinance, the elections board lacked from the outset the authority to send the measure to the ballot, according to the Ohio Supreme Court.

Board of elections member Dr. Bruce Saferin said if the language is proper and city council voted, he does not believe there will be a problem. Members work to follow legal and proper procedure, he said.

“If it's changed and everyone agrees that it's fine, that is our job to make sure everything goes correctly and is done correctly during an election,” Dr. Saferin said.

Separately, Nathaniel Livingston, Jr. filed a pro se measure this week with the Ohio Supreme Court asking the proposed  downtown jail charter amendment be placed on the November ballot. The justices ordered respondents, including the board of elections, must reply by Monday.

Contact Ryan Dunn at rdunn@theblade.com, 419-724-6095, or on Twitter @RDunnBlade.

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