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Supreme Court: Hamilton County must provide better ballot language for affordable housing fund

Cincinnati City Hall
Posted at 5:16 PM, Mar 30, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-30 18:35:50-04

The Ohio Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled the Hamilton County Board of Elections “abused its discretion and disregarded applicable law” when approving the ballot language for a proposed affordable housing trust fund in Cincinnati.

It’s a win for affordable housing advocates in the community, many of whom had complained that the language destined for Cincinnatians’ ballots in May did not accurately describe the fund they hoped to create. Instead, they said, the city- and board of elections-approved wording deliberately portrayed the proposed fund in a negative light and would prejudice voters to vote against it.

"We're fighting for affordable housing,” said Margaret Fox, the activist who filed the initial complaint, in a March 16 conversation with WCPO. "And in order to communicate that truthfully to the voters, we're now having to fight for fair ballot language. … City Council's interpretation of our petition language isn't accurate."

The proposed amendment authored by Fox and other local activists would create a city fund meant specifically for constructing, renovating and maintaining low-cost housing. It would also create a board to oversee the fund and require that the city requisition $50 million each year to maintain it.

The version of the amendment approved by City Council and the Hamilton County Board of Elections adds significantly more detail, including portions claiming that the fund “could require the city to reduce city services” and “the mandatory $50 million annual appropriation shall take priority over other funding needs.”

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court took Fox’s side and ordered the board of elections to produce new ballot language that would describe the proposal more accurately.

In a ruling signed by Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, the court wrote: “Upon consideration thereof, it is ordered by the court that the Hamilton County Board of Elections abused its discretion and disregarded applicable law in preparing and certifying ballot language stating that the use of two potential funding sources for the proposed affordable-housing trust fund would violate state law and a writ of mandamus is granted to compel the Hamilton County Board of Elections to prepare and certify new ballot language and transmit the language to Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose for the secretary’s final approval, consistent with the opinion rendered herein.”

Housing activist Josh Spring, who runs the Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition, accused politicians at City Hall of deliberately misleading voters because they personally disapproved of the proposal. City Council member David Mann and mayoral candidate Cecil Thomas — who holds no seat in the city currently — had both openly worried about finding a way to supply $50 million for affordable housing in the city budget.

Cincinnatians will vote on the proposed fund May 4, 2021.