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Salem RITA going to secretary of state

LISBON – The Ohio secretary of state will decide the fate of the proposed Salem RITA ballot issue after the Columbiana County Board of Elections reached a stalemate.

The elections board on Friday deadlocked 2-2 along party lines, with Republicans David Johnson and Vic Maroscher voting to uphold a challenge to the citizens petition seeking to place the RITA issue on the Nov. 3 ballot. Democrats Patty Colian and Larry Bowersock voted to reject the challenge and to let the issue appear on the ballot.

The petition seeks to void Salem City Council’s January decision to replace its income tax office with the Regional Income Tax Agency.  RITA is a non-profit agency created under law by the Council of Regional Governments to provide income tax collection services for cities and villages.

A citizens group opposed to council’s decision filed a petition with the elections board seeking to place a voter referendum on the ballot. Meanwhile, Salem City

Councilwoman Cyndi Baronzzi Dickey filed paperwork with the board challenging the validity of the petition effort.

At a hearing held Friday, Dickey’s attorney, Curt Hartman of Cincinnati, argued the legislation passed by council authorized Mayor John Berlin to sign a contract with RITA. He said that is an administrative function, and administrative duties are not subject to a voter referendum.

Salem City Treasurer Bret Apple, an attorney, represented the petitioners, and he disagreed with Hartman’s assessment. He said under city law, the treasurer’s office has authority over the income tax office and that authority cannot be transferred to the mayor without changing the law.

Mayor John Berlin said city council did just that in 2015 when it passed legislation allowing Salem to contract with RITA, thereby stripping the treasurer’s office of its responsibility.

The debate then turned to whether voters were being disenfranchised if the issue were to be excluded from the ballot, which was suggested by Michelle Weaver, who helped circulate petitions.

Colian agreed, saying one of the board’s duties is to protect the rights of voters. “I have a problem suppressing voting,” she said.

This was disputed by Johnson, who said municipal elections were held last year during the height of the RITA debate, and every candidate who favored RITA was elected, including over opponents who favored sticking with the municipal income tax office. He said voters would have the chance again to elect anti-RITA candidates when the council seats come up for election again.

Apple then asked Dickey how she happened to find attorney Hartman, and Hartman objected, saying such information was protected by attorney-client privilege, which Apple questioned. Johnson, who was chairing the meeting, told Dickey she did not have to answer the question.

Apple then asked Hartman if he knew Johnson and if the two were Facebook friends. “That’s relevant and I want that on the record,” he said.

Johnson interjected that he wanted it on the record that he objected to the inference.

After the hearing, Hartman told the Journal he knows of Johnson because both are active with the state Republican Party. As for he and Johnson being Facebook “friends,” Hartman said he has thousands of Facebook friends.

Bowersock then suggested Dickey drop her challenge “and let the people of Salem decide.”

Hartman said now that the elections board is aware the petition is possibly flawed it cannot look the other way and the board has a legal duty to act, one way or the other.

Bowersock then said perhaps board members should recuse themselves from the vote if they have been for or against RITA and participated in public discussions on the issue.

 “That would be the whole board,” Johnson said. Everyone but Maroscher lives in Salem, and Johnson said they are all involved in local politics and this has been one of the most debated issues in recent years.

Johnson said regardless of their political beliefs or feelings on RITA, he believes they can set aside all of that and act in a manner consistent with their oath to follow the law and uphold the Constitution.

In case of tie election board votes, the secretary of state office is responsible for casting the deciding vote. Secretary of State Frank LaRose is a Republican.

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