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Legal Experts Say Petition To Stop Arena Payments Is Legit
Franklin County election officials need to review petitions submitted last week to force the city to stop making payments on Nationwide Arena. A local group wants voters to decide future funding of the arena now owned by the city and Franklin County. The question is whether the move is lawful. WOSU talked to some legal experts who say, while it’s unusual, it is a legal move.
“Citizens can do this,” Ohio State Moritz College of Law Professor Dale Oesterle said.
Oesterle said Columbus City Charter allows voters to put an initiative on the ballot to create a new ordinance.
“This is an effort to put a new ordinance on the books which, in essence, affects the operation of an old ordinance that they disagree with. It’s very clever, actually.”
The Columbus Coalition for Responsive Government delivered 17,000 signatures to City Hall. The group wants city council to amend the arena lease law to require voter approval for future payments.
It is unlikely council will make the change. If not, it likely will be up to voters.
That begs the question which has Oesterle and lawyers chattering: Can voters undo a contract that was signed 18 months ago?
If voters decided not to allow for future arena lease payments, Oesterle said the city would be in breach of its lease agreement with the Franklin County Convention Facilities Authority, the public agency that controls the arena.
“And of course if they did that it would destroy the lease agreement because the lease agreement financing would be destroyed if the citizens refused to fund,” he said.
Oesterle predicts lawyers for the city will say the initiative is invalid. He predicts they’ll point to a constitutional clause that states a governmental unit cannot retroactively change a contract.
But Oesterle doubts the clause applies to the arena deal, but he admits the law is unclear.
Columbus City Attorney Rick Pfeiffer declined to comment.
If the initiative makes it to the ballot, the city likely would campaign hard against it. In fact, the arena lease may mandate a campaign. Another OSU law professor, Stephanie Hoffer, said the lease requires the city to make all efforts to approve funding for the arena payments.
“I think the city is probably required to do a little bit of advertising to the public to try to prevent the initiative from passing,” Hoffer said.
And Hoffer added if voters cut off payments, the Convention Facilities Authority may not be able to pay its bills. And – worst case scenario – she said the CFA might have to liquidate the arena and surrounding properties.
“And that’s a really disastrous situation for the city. Not because of the legal consequences under this contract or under the law, but just because it really throws that particular area of the city into turmoil,: she said.
That’s still a long way off.
But when the arena deal was hashed out in 2011, Mayor Coleman called it one of the most complicated agreements he’d ever seen.
Now that complicated agreement likely will be inspected closely by lawyers, judges and possibly appeals courts even before it goes before voters.