The Ohio Elections Commission ruled yesterday that campaign statements by a local group opposing the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium levy were untrue. However, the commissioners voted not to fine Citizens for Responsible Taxation or to refer the group for criminal prosecution.
The Ohio Elections Commission ruled yesterday that campaign statements by a local group opposing the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium levy were untrue.
However, the commissioners voted not to fine Citizens for Responsible Taxation or to refer the group for criminal prosecution.
Two of the five commission members specifically said they believed the statements had been made with reckless disregard for the truth.
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Phil Pikelny, chairman of the zoo board, filed the complaint on April 25. It charged that the group’s printed materials and website contained false information that the zoo was going to tear down Veterans Memorial on W. Broad Street and build a Downtown zoo on the site.
In fact, the complaint said, the Downtown zoo facility would be about three blocks from Veterans Memorial, and the zoo has no control over the building’s demolition.
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Pikelny is an executive of The Dispatch Printing Company, which publishes The Dispatch and Dispatch.com.
“We thank the commission for recognizing that there were lies told,” Pikelny said after the hearing.
Dan McCormick, spokesman for Citizens for Responsible Taxation, said his group “is glad to put this distraction aside and excited that voters will decide this issue.” He said his group took “ decisive action to comply with the zoo’s last-minute request” to change statements on its literature.
“We encourage taxpayers to exercise their right to vote,” he said. The zoo’s permanent, 1.25-mill property-tax levy is on the Franklin County ballot today.
On Wednesday, a three-member commission panel decided there was probable cause to have the entire commission consider the complaint. That led to yesterday’s hearing, which was presided over by five of the seven commission members.
During a nearly five-hour hearing, Marion H. Little Jr., the zoo board’s attorney, questioned several members of the citizens group. Treasurer Mary Fontana Lorms told him she had tried to get a master plan from the zoo levy committee in March and was told it was proprietary and would not be released. She said she had continued to distribute fliers with some of the erroneous information after she learned that one statement was not accurate.
Little said that proved that the group had recklessly disregarded the truth.
Jim Becker, the attorney for the citizens group, argued that its members had changed their literature when they learned of the complaint, which he called frivolous.
Under Ohio law, it is illegal for campaigns to “post, publish, circulate, distribute or otherwise disseminate a false statement, either knowing the same to be false or acting with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.”
Becker said the commission found false statements but not reckless disregard of the truth.
The zoo levy would replace a 10-year, 0.75-mill tax that will expire at the end of 2015. That costs Franklin County homeowners $21 per $100,000 of assessed valuation. The proposed levy would cost $44 per $100,000 of valuation. Part of the reason for the increase is that the state no longer pays 12.5 percent of new levies for homeowners.