Canal Winchester proposed charter change would ban political endorsements

Scott Gerfen
ThisWeek
Canal Winchester municipal offices

As Canal Winchester City Council continues to discuss proposed changes to the city charter, its members appear to be divided over political party endorsements. 

One recommendation proposed by the Canal Winchester Charter Review Commission would prohibit any mayoral or council candidate from “seeking, accepting, publishing or communicating an endorsement.” 

Every 10 years, appointed citizens are charged with reviewing, line by line, the city charter, which includes 12 articles related to City Council, the mayor, boards and commissions and other leadership functions. 

Canal Winchester elections are nonpartisan. 

“In a city such as ours, you often have people from the same party running head-to-head,” Councilman Will Bennett said during council’s March 15 work session. “I think both of our mayoral candidates in the last race were Republicans. If one sought an endorsement, there’s potential that it could influence the race. ... We could have an outside body putting a thumb on our elections.” 

The review commission voted 9-2 to recommend the charter change. 

“I think they stood up and said we didn’t like what happened,” Councilwoman Jill Amos said, referring to the November 2019 election. 

During the campaign, council members Bob Clark, Chuck Milliken and Mike Walker sought and received an endorsement from the Franklin County Republican Party. Their photos subsequently appeared on campaign materials distributed by the party, even after Clark asked that the candidates remain off the GOP slate card. 

The endorsement became an issue for Milliken, a U.S. Postal Service carrier, after federal investigators concluded he violated the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal employees from participating in certain partisan political activities. However, they concluded he did not knowingly violate the law and closed the case. 

Both Clark and Walker said prohibiting endorsements would violate the U.S. Constitution. 

“Right now, there is no place in central Ohio – and I’m currently checking Ohio – that any city government has this kind of ordinance in any rules or charter,” Clark said. “There’s a reason for that: freedom of speech and the right to politically assemble.” 

Walker said he fears the charter change would open the door to lawsuits. 

“If there’s a possibility of the city being sued, why would we set ourselves up for that?” he asked. 

Jesse Shamp, an attorney with Frost Brown Todd, which serves as the city’s legal counsel, said these issues were raised last year during the charter review process.  

“However, the general feeling was to send it on to council for discussion,” he said. 

City Council can accept, reject, modify or create its own language before placing any charter changes before voters. 

The review commission began its examination of the city charter in late February 2020. In November 2020, it unanimously recommended: 

• Requiring candidates for City Council and mayor to live in the city at least a year before running for office 

• Requiring notice of a recall election to be posted on the city’s website 

• Permitting City Council to assign other duties to the clerk of council 

• Clarifying that City Council is not required to adopt rules at its first meeting every year

• Providing gender-neutral language in the section of the charter dealing with council vacancies 

 • Allowing copies of the city’s ordinances to be kept at other locations in City Hall

• Requiring ordinances and resolutions to be published on the city’s website 

• Updating references of “village” to “city" 

Other recommendations, including political endorsements, passed by an overwhelming majority of the charter review commission and would, if approved, reduce the time between charter reviews from 10 to five years; provide for the removal of the mayor or any council member “for cause” upon determining he or she violated charter section 11.02 related to conflicts of interest, ethics and campaign financing. 

The commission voted 6-5 in favor of recommending that the clerk of council be prohibited from holding other employment or a position within the city. 

Charter commission members also explored other forms of local government but ultimately voted 9-2 in favor of keeping the current “strong mayor-council form of government,” according to the commission’s report to council. 

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