The Franklin County Board of Elections will hear a protest to a group's call for voter-approved campaign-finance reform in Columbus.
During its regular meeting scheduled for Monday, Jan. 13, the elections board will hear a complaint about the Columbus Coalition for Responsive Government's plans to seek voter approval of an issue that effectively gives candidates for Columbus City Council and the mayor's office access to public money if they set voluntary caps on their campaigns.
Brian Rothenberg, executive director of the liberal group Progress Ohio, has filed a protest with the elections board, saying the coalition's efforts don't really accomplish its objective of limiting campaign contributions.
Rothenberg, who is acting independently on the issue, not on behalf of Progress Ohio, said the ballot measure essentially creates a system whereby candidates keep taxpayer funds, but will likely never face contribution or expenditure limits.
For example, an independent, outside group could pour money into a campaign, effectively breaking the cap, even without the candidates' consent, he said.
Ben Piscitelli, spokesman for the board of elections, said protests about ballot issues are heard from time to time, but most aren't granted.
They generally involve significant flaws, such as someone failing to sign or date documents as required, Piscitelli said.
Disputes resulting in a tie vote by elections board members are forwarded to the secretary of state. They could also end up in court if a judge decides to take the case, he said.
Rothenberg said he'd like to see better review mechanisms upfront, such as having the city attorney review ballot language before an issue goes in front of voters.
He said he also wishes the coalition would have consulted a broader swath of people in the community who are interested in campaign-finance reform.
"I've always believed that campaign finance (reform) is a good idea, that the best defense is public scrutiny and disclosure rules," Rothenberg said.
"But there needs to be more campaign finance reform in general that's meaningful and impactful."
Jonathan Beard, spokesman for the coalition, said there are many safeguards in place to protect taxpayers and candidates who opt-in to the system.
For example, there's a liquidated damages clause that requires candidates who exceed the cap to pay back $3 for every $1 they receive in public money, he said.
That excludes money contributed by outside groups, as long as there's no coordination between the candidate and those groups, Beard said.
He said the coalition is trying to create fair and competitive campaigns, and that the current political structure locks qualified people out of races because of money.
"We realize our legislation is the first word and not the last word" on campaign-finance reform, Beard said.
"Obviously, we hope to be on the ballot," he said.
"I think there are some people in Columbus who don't want this on the ballot and they're looking for any possible means to keep people from voting on what's very obviously needed."
On Nov. 7 -- two days after three well-funded City Council incumbents were re-elected -- the coalition, in calling for campaign-finance reform, dropped off petitions at City Hall containing nearly 23,000 signatures.
The board of elections returned petitions to the city clerk Dec. 16 to show that enough valid signatures were submitted to place the issue on the ballot, Piscitelli said.
The board found 9,284 valid signatures among the 22,823 submitted. Petitioners needed 4,478 valid signatures, or 5 percent of the 89,571 votes cast in the 2013 municipal election, Piscitelli said.