Kent Citizens for Democracy waged a successful campaign to pass a Move to Amend ballot initiative last year, despite strong opposition from the city’s political leadership. The city’s Law Director claimed that citizens needed to collect signatures numbering 10% of all registered voters in Kent as stipulated in the city charter to qualify for the ballot. Kent activists responded that the city charter violated the state constitution, which stipulates that only 10% of registered voters who voted in the previous election were needed. The activists submitted more than sufficient signatures to meet the lower threshold. The city refused to accept the submitted signatures. The activists went all the way to the Ohio Supreme Court, which ruled 7-0 in favor of Kent Citizens for Democracy.
A published article of the controversy is below:
Ohio Supreme Court rules Kent officials unconstitutionally blocked ‘Democracy Day’ ballot issue
The ballot measure in Kent passed last November in a landslide with 64% of the vote. As with all ballot measures, a Democracy Day public hearing was to be held.
The first Democracy Day in Kent is scheduled for October 6. When Kent Citizens for Democracy members reached out recently to the city (specifically, the Law Director) to coordinate details of the upcoming hearing, they were told that the public hearing would only be open to Kent residents to testify — despite the fact that the passed ordinance states the “general public” can speak. The Law Director, who opined last year that the city charter prevailed over the state constitution, once again decided to interpret the law as he saw it and tried to persuade city council to follow suit.
Kent Citizens for Democracy members showed up to their city council meeting last night and asserted that the definition of “general public” should be more inclusive than Kent residents. They prevailed! Thus, the October 6 Democracy Day in Kent will actually be democratic — open to all who wish to speak.
Below is the testimony of Kent resident Lee Brooker to city council:
“2 to 1! 64% of the voters in November voted to add to our charter a requirement for an annual hearing, open for the general public to speak at, about the influence of big money in politics, and for an official statement from the city to congress saying that the voters of Kent voted in favor of a constitutional amendment saying that corporations are not people and that money is not speech.
Now the law department is suggesting that the hearing not be open to the general public to speak at, but be restricted to allow only people who live in Kent to speak. That would defy our new charter amendment.
The Macmillan Dictionary definition of general public is ‘ordinary people in society, rather than people who are considered to be important or who belong to a particular group.’
The fact that the charter governs only people in Kent has nothing to do with who is welcome to speak at a hearing for the general public to speak at that is required by the charter.
I can’t imagine why we would want the Democracy Day hearing to be some insular, closed thing that excludes interested people who don’t happen to live in Kent, but it doesn’t matter why. What matters is the intent and language of the charter, which clearly states that ‘members of the general public in attendance shall be afforded the opportunity to speak…’ Even if it just said ‘public,’ rather than ‘general public,’ it would be clear. ‘General public’ makes it abundantly clear. The Democracy Day hearing is not a city council meeting; it’s a hearing for the general public. You don’t have to live in Kent; you don’t have to live in Portage County; you don’t have to live in Ohio; you don’t have to live in the United States, for that matter, in order to speak. (In fact, international perspectives would be great!) The more varied the perspectives and backgrounds the better.
There are plenty of good reasons for the hearing to be open to the general public to speak at, but that’s beside the point. The point is that it is open to the general public to speak at. That’s what the charter says. That’s the law. That’s what 2/3 of the voters in November voted for. The charter says nothing about excluding anyone from speaking at the hearing; just the opposite. Such exclusion would not only be against the spirit of the amendment, but also against its substance.”
Congratulations Kent Citizens for Democracy!
p.s. The issues of corporate constitutional rights and money as speech, Kent trying to prevent citizens from placing a citizen initiative on their ballot, and the city seeking to determine who can and can’t speak at the Democracy Day hearing are on one level ultimately the same issue — about people asserting their right to decide and having representatives who actually represent them and not “special” interests.