Lawyers to City Law Director: Certify Q Deal Referendum Signatures or We'll See You in Court

click to enlarge Leaders of the referendum coalition speaking gathering on the steps of City Hall before their signatures were rejected. - Sam Allard / Scene
Sam Allard / Scene
Leaders of the referendum coalition speaking gathering on the steps of City Hall before their signatures were rejected.

Attorneys at the Chandra law firm representing the Q deal referendum coalition filed a taxpayer demand letter Friday morning, demanding that the Clerk of City Council accept the initiative petition that was rejected earlier this week.

"Swift action is required," the letter says. "Not only is the City apparently expending resources against the will of the electorate under the false pretense of a so-called 'emergency measure,' it is invoking inapplicable constitutional arguments in an apparent effort to thwart the electorate’s statutory right to referendum."

Read the full letter here.

The letter was addressed to the city's law director Barbara Langhenry. It asked for assurances that the petition be accepted and certified by June 7. If the Clerk fails to perform her duties, the letter says, the Law Director must compel her to do so. And if the law director does not, the attorneys are prepared to file taxpayer litigation against the Clerk of Council, City Council, and the Law Director.

The taxpayer demand letter includes in its argument much of the Cleveland City Charter's material pertaining to initiative and referendum (It's Chapters seven and nine. The sections are very short and fairly easy to understand — 59, 60 and 64 are the relevant ones.)

Basically, as asserted in the letter and as previously suggested by councilpeople, the petitioners did everything properly; that is, in accordance with the charter: They collected signatures, exceeding by a factor of more than three the total required, (10 percent of the total electors in the preceding election), and they submitted the signatures to the Clerk of Council within 30 days of the ordinance's passage.

The ordinance was passed as an emergency measure by a council vote of 12-5. The "emergency" designation was activated when the legislation achieved a two-thirds majority in council. Brian Cummins, recall, provided the vote that tipped the scales. Frank Jackson signed the ordinance into law the following day.

But as the Charter makes clear (in section 64), emergency ordinances “are subject to referendum in like manner as other ordinances” unless, unlike 305-17, they are “passed as emergency measures for the immediate preservation of the public peace, property, health, or safety and providing for the refinancing of bonds, notes or other securities of the City.”

But the rejection memo signed by Allan Dreyer and presented to the referendum coalition Monday morning makes no mention at all of the City Charter. In its two-sentence rejection, it merely claims that the petition "unconstitutionally impairs" an "already executed and binding contract."

The demand letter, from Chandra law firm attorneys Peter Pattakos and Subodh Chandra himself, stresses that the U.S. Constitution’s Contract Clause, which was invoked in the rejection letter, does not apply to taxpayers’ petition for referendum. 

The Contract Clause holds that, “No State shall enter into any Treaty, Alliance, or Confederation; grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal; coin Money; emit Bills of Credit; make any Thing but gold and silver Coin a Tender in Payment of Debts; pass any Bill of Attainder, ex post facto Law, or Law impairing the Obligation of Contracts, or grant any Title of Nobility.” (Emphasis added by Chandra law firm.)

"By its plain language, the Contract Clause only bars the passing of laws 'impairing the obligation of contracts,'" the letter asserts. "It has no application to an electorate’s rejection of a newly proposed or newly enacted law subject to referendum. Not only has no Ohio court ever held to the contrary, but our research suggests that no Ohio party has ever advanced this specious argument. Indeed, it is unimaginable that the Contract Clause was intended to give government officials carte blanche to propose new laws against the will of the electorate and then rush into contracts in an effort to void the electorate’s statutory right to repeal those laws."

In a statement released in conjunction with the demand letter, Pattakos (who has written for and legally represented Scene, and is a known opponent of stadium subsidies) decried the actions of city council.

"It’s shocking to see elected officials attempt to thwart their constituents' will like this,” he said. “If the City Council members who passed this ordinance are truly confident in its merits, they should be glad to have it put to the test at the ballot. The law guarantees Clevelanders’ right to this referendum. The Clerk's refusal to fulfill her legal duties should be met with a swift correction in court.”

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Sam Allard

Sam Allard is the Senior Writer at Scene, in which capacity he covers politics and power and writes about movies when time permits. He's a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and the NEOMFA at Cleveland State. Prior to joining Scene, he was encamped in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on an...
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