With help from the Westerville City School District (WCSD), local attorney Gene Hollins’s effort to remove the Taxpayers For Westerville Schools (TFWS) levy referendum from the ballot succeeded at a September 4 Franklin County Board of Elections hearing. Hollins’s August 22 complaint to the elections board was bolstered by a WCSD memorandum submitted August 31.
In a legal victory for a school district struggling to keep spending in line with revenue, the elections board removed the tax referendum from the ballot based on the rationale that the 2009 levy targeted for partial repeal was not a tax hike.
TFWS released a statement which argued, “The protestor stated that the issue could not be placed on the ballot because it was reducing a ‘Replacement’ levy from 2009. Yet EVERYTHING indicated that this levy was an increase in our taxes – the school said it was, our tax bill said it was, the newspaper reported it as such… And yet, the 2009 ballot language said it was a replacement of ‘voted’ millage, instead of ‘effective’ (or actually charged) millage.”
The decision followed legal maneuvering on the part of WCSD. At a WCSD board meeting on August 27 - five days after Hollins filed his complaint – the school board voted to retain Bricker & Eckler, LLP for legal services related to the TFWS campaign to roll back property taxes in the district.
Before the vote, WCSD board member Kristi Robbins asked school board president Kevin Hoffman, “My understanding, then, is that we would authorize [Bricker & Eckler] – should this pass – to represent the board of education in legal proceedings regarding the repeal effort? Are there any legal proceedings going on currently regarding the repeal effort?”
“No,” Hoffman said.
Robbins asked whether the intent was to use Bricker & Eckler’s services “in the event that there would be some type of legal proceeding,” and Hoffman answered in the affirmative.
Dr. Carol French, another WCSD board member, then asked Hoffman whether he anticipated any legal action regarding the levy referendum to be included as Issue 52 on local ballots.
“I think it’s appropriate to be prepared, because this is a unique space for us,” Hoffman replied. The board then voted to authorize Bricker & Eckler to represent WCSD in any legal proceedings related to the TFWS ballot issue.
Later in the meeting, French reminded Hoffman that he had not addressed comments from a resident about the district spending taxpayer funds to oppose TFWS. Hoffman alluded to the complaint filed by Hollins, saying it was “part of the reason” for the proposal to authorize Bricker & Eckler to represent the board regarding Issue 52.
French asked Hoffman why he did not mention Hollins’s complaint when previously asked whether any legal measures had been taken related to the levy referendum, and Hoffman apologized for getting “lost in semantics.”
In a letter provided to school board members at the August 27 meeting, Maurice Thompson of the 1851 Center for Constitutional Law warned that any attempt by WCSD to knock the levy referendum off the ballot “would no doubt qualify as a ‘communication’ that ‘opposes’ a levy issue.” Thompson – who identified the law providing citizens a way to combat local tax hikes and who has provided TFWS legal counsel – argued that any public spending of this nature would be illegal.
After the Monday, August 27 vote, Bricker & Eckler filed a memorandum on Friday, August 31 supporting the complaint from Hollins.
Media Trackers contacted Hoffman to ask when the WCSD board decided to pay for the production of a legal brief arguing against the TFWS referendum, but did not receive a response in time for publication.
TFWS and the 1851 Center plan to file an appeal of the Franklin County Board of Elections decision with the Ohio Supreme Court. The dispute must be resolved by September 22, when the elections board begins mailing absentee ballots.