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Elections board rejects pair of Falls referendum issues

‘The Change in The Falls’ vows to take issue to state Supreme Court

WARREN — Two referendum issues presented by “Be The Change in the Falls” group were rejected Tuesday by the Trumbull County Board of Elections.

The group of residents was seeking to overturn legislation involving the replacement of water and electric meters in addition to upgrading the law director’s pay.

The group said it plans to file a complaint with the Ohio Supreme Court over the referendum issues.

Stephanie Penrose, elections director, said full-time pay and benefits for the law director was determined to be an administrative move done by village officials. Therefore, it’s not subject to voter referendum.

Village officials had argued that the decision to upgrade the salary and benefits is an administrative matter under Ohio law, not a legislative one.

Had it been determined a legislative act, then the matter would have been subject to referendum.

Another matter involved an ordinance approved in June by village council for meter replacement. This was ruled moot and not subject to referendum. That’s because a new and updated meter ordinance was approved by council on July 6 to replace that first meter ordinance.

The village is planning to spend $3.1 million to replace current electric and water meters and install upgraded replacements. The first meter ordinance approved in June was repealed with an update in July.

Penrose said a legal opinion to the board from the county prosecutor’s office determined that the meter issue is moot because the referendum was directed at the first ordinance, which had been repealed.

Council approved the second ordinance, which contains more information on scheduling for replacement of the meters and phone number to call for questions.

Penrose said the citizens group does have the option to appeal the elections board’s decision and ask for a hearing for reconsideration.

The board voted 3-0 on both issues. Board President Mark Alberini abstained from voting as he is a relative of Newton Falls Councilman Tarry Alberini, who voted on the two issues.

The citizens group has two other issues it is seeking to referendum.

Penrose said an issue on money spent to purchase a church for new village offices has had all signatures on the petition verified.

The fourth issue is the new meter replacement ordinance with 356 signatures obtained in a week submitted to Newton Falls Clerk Kathy King, who will next submit them to the board of elections for verification.

Resident Jim Luonuansuu is among the residents seeking to submit the issues for referendum.

“We are not surprised by this decision and expected it to be what it was,” he said expressing concerns that the group was not able to submit information to the election like the village and attorney Joseph Fritz were.

Luonuansuu said the group plans to next file a brief this week with the Ohio Supreme Court against the action of both Newton Falls village council and the board of elections that the referendum issues should be placed on the ballot for “a fair vote by the public.”

“We want the public to have the opportunity to vote on these important issues,” he said.

“We gathered 356 signatures in seven days. This should show council that we intend to make sure that the people of Newton Falls get a chance to vote on this,” he said.

Luonuansuu said the petition objecting to the village spending $395,000 to purchase First Congregational Church for village offices will have to be acted upon by the elections board — as will the second meter replacement ordinance.

As for the law director contract: “To do this council had to enact an ordinance to make it full time — which is legislative,” he said.

Luonuansuu said the law director position was part time since 1968 and now council has approved providing Fritz full-time benefits, which he believes constitutes legislative action to make the position full time.

“The law director has not had benefits since 1968. … That is a change to the position,” he said.

In other business, the elections board at 9 a.m. Friday will take up the issue of residency and eligibility of Niki Frenchko, Republican candidate for county commissioner.

Frenchko had filed an objection to the hearing, and Penrose said the board checked with the prosecutor’s office that the board can address the issue. Should the board decide in favor of a challenge to her residency, Frenchko could be removed from the November ballot where she opposes incumbent Democrat Dan Polivka.

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