Lake Township's election to approve a tax levy for the Uniontown Police Department is now a dead issue.
The Ohio Supreme Court backed a Stark County judge who threw out the results of the election because the language on Issue 6 -- approving a property tax for the Uniontown police district -- was misleading.
The ballot language under-reported the actual hit property owners would pay by tenfold; instead of 45 cents for each thousand dollars in property value the levy would have collected $4.50.
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(Ohio Supreme Court) The Supreme Court of Ohio today affirmed a decision of the Stark County Court of Common Pleas that set aside the results of a 2011 election in which Lake Township voters approved a property tax levy to fund expansion of the Uniontown Police District.
In a 7-0 per curiam decision, the court found that the ballot language describing Stark County Issue 6 significantly understated the impact of the levy on property owners, and the trial court acted correctly in setting aside the election result because the inaccurate ballot language constituted a “substantial defect that materially misled voters about the levy.”
Pursuant to a resolution adopted by the Lake Township Board of Trustees, township voters in the November 8, 2011 election were asked to vote for or against adoption of the proposed tax levy “at a rate not exceeding four and one-half (4.50) mills for each one dollar of valuation, which amounts to forty-five cents ($0.45) for each one thousand dollars of valuation ...” The issue was approved by 490 votes, with 5,577 votes in favor and 5,087 votes against.
On December 9, 2012 more than 300 of those who had voted in the November election (the contestors) filed a petition in the Stark County Common Pleas Court contesting the Issue 6 election result and requesting that the election be set aside and the issue be deemed rejected. They based that action on the fact that the 45 cents per $1,000 valuation figure stated in the ballot language was inaccurate, because adoption of a 4.5 mill levy would actually result in a tax assessment on property owners of $4.50 for each $1,000 of property valuation, an amount ten times higher than stated in the ballot language. The Stark County Board of Elections, Lake Township Board of Trustees and Citizens for Lake Township Police (the contestees) filed an answer urging the court to uphold the election results notwithstanding the ballot language error.
The court conducted a hearing at which the parties stipulated that the ballot language was inaccurate and that the same erroneous language had also appeared in the township trustees’ resolution placing Issue 6 on the ballot and in two legal notices describing the ballot issue that were published in the Hartville News. After reviewing witness testimony and affidavits from 21 voters who indicated that they had voted “yes” on the issue based on the ballot language, but would have voted “no” if the true impact of the levy on their property taxes had been disclosed, and opposing testimony from the contestees, the court entered a judgment granting the election contest and setting aside the election result approving Issue 6.
The contestees exercised their right under Supreme Court Practice Rule 2.1(C)(2) and R.C. 3515.15 to appeal the trial court’s ruling directly to the Supreme Court.
In today’s unanimous decision, the court affirmed the trial court’s holding that the contestors’ election contest petition was not barred by the affirmative defenses of laches (unreasonable delay in asserting a legal challenge) or estoppel (failure to assert their challenge before the ballot issue was submitted to the voters).
With regard to the contestors’ claim that the inaccurate ballot language constituted an error sufficient to require voiding the election result, the court wrote: “To prevail in their election contest, contestors ‘had to establish by clear and convincing evidence that one or more election irregularities occurred and that the irregularity or irregularities affected enough votes to change or make uncertain the result of the ... election.’ ... (T)he parties stipulated ... the election ballot’s failure to comply with R.C. 505.481(B) by understating the correct tax amount for the police district levy by ten times less than the actual amount constituted an election irregularity.”
“For the second part of the test, the trial court determined that the contestors were not required to bring into court 246 voters who voted for Issue 6 to testify that they would have voted no if the ballot language stating the tax in dollars and cents per $1,000 of valuation had been correct. Contestees are correct that ordinarily, evidence that 21 voters would have voted differently in the absence of any election irregularity would not be clear and convincing evidence that the irregularity affected enough votes to either change the outcome or make it uncertain when the margin by which the issue was approved is 490 votes. But in tax-levy and bond cases, we have presumed the invalidity of the election more readily in the context of a postelection proceeding.”
“The degree of the error here was substantial. The defective language on the ballot, notice, and authorizing resolution understated the actual tax to be levied by Issue 6 by ten times less than the actual tax. In calculating the error, there is no evidence that the township or the election officials were faced with any problems estimating the amount of the levy. Finally, the issue was passed by approximately 52.3 percent of the vote—hardly an overwhelming majority. ... A misstatement that property owners would pay ten times less than the actual taxes they would pay constituted a substantial defect that materially misled voters about the levy. The contestors’ witnesses testified that they were, in fact, misled.”
“Therefore, the contestors have satisfied their heavy burden of establishing by the requisite clear and convincing evidence that the election irregularity affected enough votes to make the election result on Issue 6 uncertain.”
The court’s opinion was joined by Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Evelyn Lundberg Stratton, Terrence O’Donnell, Judith Ann Lanzinger, Robert R. Cupp and Yvette McGee Brown. Justice Paul E. Pfeifer concurred in judgment only.
The legal dispute over Lake Township's police levy is now on the fast track before the Ohio Supreme Court.
Ballot errors led voters to believe the levy was one amount to support a township-wide police force, but in reality the cost was ten times higher. The levy passed by 490 votes out of more than 10,000 cast but a Stark County judge threw out the results because of the mistake.
The state's high court is hearing appeals and giving both sides until the end of March to file their arguments.
The ballot and official notices about the levy that was approved by voters in Lake Township in November stated that homeowners would pay 45 cents for every $1,000 of their property value. But the correct cost is $4.50 for each $1,000 according to the county auditor.
The Canton Repository reports a county judge ruled this week that the mistake was big enough to mislead voters.
The levy would have generated $2.59 million a year so the Uniontown police department could expand its jurisdiction to all of Lake Township.
A 19-year-old-man turned himself into authorities Monday evening after a hit-skip accident that left a young mother in the hospital in Lake Township.
News Channel 5 reports Cynthia Hernandez, 23, is recovering from a broken leg and bruises after she was hit by a driver on Mt. Pleasant Road Saturday night.
Police say James Knappenberger, 19, of North Canton was driving the in the car with his fiancé who is an illegal immigrant from Nicaragua
He told police he left the scene of the accident because he didn't want her to get deported.
Knappenberger was charged with leaving the scene of an accident.
On the Web: www.newsnet5.com
North Canton police say a man was after he side-swiped an officer's cruiser early Saturday morning.
The North Canton officer walked away without any injuries after his police cruiser was struck on its passenger side by a 1998 Lincoln Navigator.
Police arrested Kevin C. Kreiter, 59, of Pompano Beach, FL, on charges of grand theft, reckless operation and fleeing the scene. Kreiter is expected to face additional charges following an investigation.
A police press release indicates Kreiter was driving without headlights, when he crested the hill in the 5900 block of Market Avenue and was traveling north bound in the south bound lane. The officer was forced to swerve to avoid a head-on collision.
Police say Kreiter drove away following the collision, as he continued to travel north bound, forcing several other vehicles off the road. Lake Township officers finally caught up with him near the intersection of Kent Avenue NE and Smith Kramer Street.
Authorities say Kreiter had been involved in another collision prior to the incident involving the North Canton officer's car.
An icy intersection in Lake Township left two people trapped inside an overturned car Wednesday morning.
The crash happened around 6:30 a.m. at State St. and Middlebranch Ave.
Authorities told the Canton Repository two people were taken to a local hospital after rescue workers were able to free them from the trapped car. Another vehicle was involved in the crash but no on appeared to be in the vehicle.
Rescue crews say no one appeared to have suffered life threatening injuries.
On the Web: www.cantonrep.com
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