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'If the shoe fits, wear it': Accusations fly over Issue 3 ballot error

State Rep. Tom Brinkman addressed a special meeting of a Cincinnati Council committee Thursday.
State Rep. Tom Brinkman, the author of Issue 3, addressed a special meeting of a Cincinnati Council committee Thursday.

Updated, October 7: See end of article for details.

Corruption accusations and counterpoints escalated to yelling at a special meeting of a Cincinnati council committee Thursday. The meeting was meant to correct an error in a proposed charter amendment. The erroneous ballot language was first pointed out by the Enquirer.

State Representative Tom Brinkman (and candidate for City Council) authored the amendment and circulated petitions to get it on the November ballot, where it will appear as Issue 3. Among other initiatives, he wants to lower council salaries to the median household income in the city.

But when the city's law department drafted the ordinance to send to the Board of Elections, the word "household" got replaced with "family." The terms have different definitions, according to the U.S. Census Bureau — using the term "family income" would result in council salaries that are about the same.

City Solicitor Andrew Garth says the change is the result of human error; his office used a version of the petition provided by Council Member Greg Landsman to draft the ordinance, and didn't catch the difference when they eventually got the final version of the petition.

Garth says he believes the petition language will take precedence if Issue 3 passes; that means the intended phrasing would become part of the city charter.

But voters will see the wrong word on their ballots, which Council Member Betsy Sundermann says is a huge problem. She wants the city to send a mailer to every registered voter explaining there's an error on the ballot.

Clerk of Council Melissa Autry says her office has never done that and she's not sure how much it would cost or how much time it would take. Garth says that action would require an appropriation vote from council.

Early voting starts Tuesday; Sundermann says there should be a special session of council as soon as possible to appropriate the money for a mailer. She estimates the cost at around $54,000 based on the number of registered voters and the typical cost of mailing a postcard.

Council Member David Mann says he likely wouldn't support such an appropriation because voters won't recognize a difference between "household" and "family" income.

"I mean, I have no idea what the difference is. And now I guess the question is, do we need to spend $54,000 to address that?" Mann said. "I'm not sure that I get the case for spending that kind of money."

The committee passed an ordinance with the correct language, which will be up for a vote at Wednesday's regular council meeting unless a special session is called before then.

Where did the erroneous petition come from?

Landsman says he got the PDF file of the petition from Brendon Cull, executive vice president and chief strategy officer for the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber. Landsman says he was chatting with Cull, whom he calls a friend, about the petitions circulating; when Landsman said he hadn't seen a full copy yet, Cull offered to share the one he had. Landsman sent it to Garth shortly after, with the simple subject line: "FYI."

In statement, Cull said he received the petition in June "from someone who was letting me know about a potential ballot initiative." He did not name the person.

"Based on what I have learned in the last day, it appears it was an earlier draft of what was eventually submitted to the Board of Elections with signatures," Cull said.

Landsman says Cull did not ask him to send the petition to the city's law department.

Brinkman strongly denied there was an early draft with the erroneous language. He says proponents printed the first round of petitions in May, followed by two additional printings, and they were all identical.

"The bottom line is, Issue 3 is a pillar of virtue and all this is trying to do is mess it up because you don't want it to pass," Brinkman said. "It started here with incompetence or corruption — had to be one or the other — and it has to end here."

Council Member Jan-Michele Lemon Kearney argued with Brinkman for several minutes, saying she takes issue with accusations of corruption without evidence.

Garth also defended the attorneys in his office.

"One of the challenges in this really polarized world that we live in is that people like to vilify the other side," Garth said. "I reject the notion that the employees in my department are somehow corrupt, or that this was intentional. It's demeaning. And frankly, it is beneath the respect that civil servants should engender."

Brinkman interjected to yell, twice, "If the shoe fits, WEAR IT."

Sundermann clarified she's not accusing the law department of changing the word on purpose.

"I think it was not double-checked against the petition once it came in," she said. "I don't think the law department or the administration ever got the full petition when it was filed. And I don't understand why."

Update: October 8

Brinkman now says the petition copy erroneously used by the City Solicitor's office to draft the ordinance did originate from petitioners.

In an email to City Manager Paula Boggs Muething, Cull says he got the petition from Western & Southern VP Ed Babbitt. The Enquirer reports Babbitt got the copy from Christine Barrett Haslam, a Republican fundraiser and daughter of Western & Southern CEO John Barrett.

Brinkman told The Enquirer "there were a lot of drafts going back and forth" when petitioners talked with Barrett Haslam about the ballot initiative.

Read more from the City Solicitor's office below:

Local Government Reporter with a particular focus on Cincinnati; experienced journalist in public radio and television throughout the Midwest. Enthusiastic about: civic engagement, public libraries, and urban planning.