When testifying before the Ohio Elections Commission last month, Portsmouth City Auditor Trent Williams said the city government was not legally obliged to get the approval of the voters to proceed with the $15 million plan to convert the Marting and Adelphia properties into a city hall and justice center. (Please read that important opening sentence again.) Williams said the city put the project on the ballot in the November 2008 election, but it was not legally required to. The city believed it had the right to go ahead with the $15 million dollar project without the approval of the voters. The city of Portsmouth also thought it had the right to spend $2 million dollars of taxpayer money to purchase the empty and leaking Marting building without the approval, or even knowledge, of taxpayers. These are examples of the kind of arrogance that led to the recall of Mayor Bauer and two members of city council and that led to the defeat in two elections, in 2006 and 2008, of city plans for the Marting building and the so-called Adelphia property.
On February 3, 2009, in a special election, voters passed a charter amendment that placed new limits on the Portsmouth city government’s authority to levy taxes. The West Virginia television channel WSAZ saw the victory of the amendment as an expression of “People Power.” Not in a million years would reporters or editors at the Daily Times dare to express such a view of the supporters of the charter amendment, not if they wanted to keep their jobs.
The heading of the proposed charter amendment reads, “Approval of the majority of electors of the City of Portsmouth needed for Passage.” An editorial in the February 5th Portsmouth Daily Times about the February 3rd election shows why so many people choose not to subscribe to that newspaper. The editorial, titled “Election a sign of things to come,” claims that the heading of the ballot amendment, with its use of the phrase “majority of electors” may be grounds to legally invalidate the amendment. To quote the editorial, “What was the committee that drafted the amendment’s intension [sic] in the wording? Did they intend for it to mean the majority of the electors, that is, those registered to vote? Or a majority of those who go to the polls in that election?” This may be a legitimate question to raise, but if whoever wrote the editorial was familiar with the charter and specifically with Section 166, which deals with amendments to the charter, he would know that the final sentence of Section 166 states, “If such a proposed amendment be approved by a majority of the electors voting thereon it shall become part of the Charter at the time fixed therein” [underlining added]. The committee that drew up the amendment to limit the taxing authority of the city repeated the “majority of electors” phraseology in the charter where the phrase is used in the context of the majority of those who would vote, not the majority of those who could vote, on charter amendments. I suspect the Daily Times, and others in city government, are deliberately misreading “majority of electors” in an effort to discredit and ultimately nullify the results of the election in court. Why would the Daily Times be involved in a scheme to subvert the democratic process? In the twenty years I have lived in Portsmouth, I have learned the Times is really the house organ of the lawyers and developers who control the city economically and politically. What the Times offers is the party line, the party in this case being the Southern Ohio Growth Partnership.
The Daily Times editorial also snidely denigrates the February 3rd election because of the small percentage of the voters who turned out. It’s a well known and much lamented flaw of American democracy that many people who could vote in any given election, don’t. Even in a general election, when the weather is good, and the issues involved in the election are well publicized, a large percentage of voters who could vote don’t. In a primary or special election, when the weather is bad, and the election itself is poorly publicized by the local media, many more voters who could vote don’t. But the Times makes the 582 who did come out and vote for the amendment sound like a small band of obstructionists or even worse (parroting Portsmouth’s police chief) like terrorists: “Portsmouth City Council is being held hostage by 582 votes.” It is the citizens of Portsmouth who are being held hostage—hostage to the lawyers and developers and to the untruths of the Portsmouth Daily Times.
The vote on the amendment was close, but in a democratic election it takes only one vote to win, no matter how many votes are cast. In Portsmouth, this applies to charter amendments as well as to other measures. The amendment to limit the city’s taxing authority passed 582 to 572, ten times more than the necessary one-vote majority. There are seven ballots still to be counted—six provisional and one absentee—but even if all seven of those votes end up being against the measure, which is unlikely, it would still pass with three times more than the required one vote majority needed.
In a recent letter to the Portsmouth Daily Times urging citizens to vote no on the amendment, City Auditor Williams called the election a “No-Brainer.” When it comes to “No-Brainers,” our auditor is something of an authority, lacking not only the brains but the educational qualifications to fulfill the duties of his office. I think he, and whoever advised him in writing this letter, is not thinking or writing clearly, and certainly is not reading the city charter clearly. That the auditor doesn’t understand the city charter and democratic elections better than he does is a sad commentary on how unqualified he appears to be for the position he holds. In his letter to the Times, Williams wrote, “If we don’t trust them,” referring to the city’s elected officials, “there is already a method in place to change things. It’s called—voting for their opponent in an election.” The Daily Times repeats the same nostrum but with a more tenuous grasp of grammar. “If you don’t trust your councilperson, vote them [sic] out of office the next time they [sic] come up for reelection.” What neither Williams or the Times pointed out is that in Portsmouth too many individuals first get on the city council by being appointed, not elected, and because of the unfortunate four-year terms for council members (two would be more than enough) they burrow in and are as hard to get rid of as termites. Half the current city council—Mearan, Albrecht, and Haas—started out as political termites. Now, just try to get rid of them!
Williams and the author of the editorial show themselves to be No-Brainers when it comes to knowing about the history of the United States, and about the so-called Progressive Era (c. 1890 to 1920) in particular. If the only way to remove those who were elected, or who were appointed to office, is to wait as long as four years to remove them, our federal, state, and city officials, especially here in Portsmouth, would be even more corrupt and beholden to those with the big bucks than they already are. As a result of changes during the Progressive Era, such as the initiative, referendum, and recall, politicians were made more accountable to the electorate and American government more democratic. No longer did voters have to wait four years to get rid of crooked politicians. They could get rid of them through recalls and they could make important changes in city charters anytime they could muster the signatures to petition the government for a special election.
“And remember,” Williams closed his letter to the Portsmouth Daily Times, “you are never going to get the majority of the electors of the city to come out to vote, let alone vote for or against any issue, so it will be impossible to buy that firetruck (sic) or replace deteriorating public property.” What is he talking about? Is he being blatantly devious, to speak oxymoronically, with these scare tactics, or is he as dumb as he sounds? It is not a majority of those qualified to vote but a majority of those who do vote who decide elections. The backers of the charter amendment are not opposed to buying fire trucks or to repairing deteriorating city property. What they are opposed to is the city suspending the rules to make emergency purchases of deteriorating private property, such as the Marting building, and then sticking the taxpayers with the $2 million dollar bill in the form of long-term property taxes.
WSAZ was right. The passage of the charter amendment was an expression of People Power. What the Daily Times editorial represents is not the people but the plutocrats, not the readers but the advertisers, who keep the wretchedly subservient paper afloat. If there were truth in advertising, wouldn’t it be called the Prostitute Daily Times?