Toledo City passes ordinance to keep jail downtown

Assistant County Prosecutor Kevin Pituch speaks during a meeting of the Lucas County Board of Elections.

A ballot initiative to keep the Lucas County jail in downtown Toledo could appear before voters in a special election after all, but county officials in the meantime intend to move forward with plans to build a new $180-million jail complex in North Toledo roughly a mile from the Michigan-Ohio line.

A citizens group called Keep the Jail Downtown Toledo has for months fought against a county commission proposal to build a new jail  and accompanying behavioral mental health center along the 5700 block of North Detroit Avenue, near East Alexis Road. 

Keep the Jail Downtown Toledo leaders gathered signatures to get on the ballot a Toledo city charter change that would require the county’s jail remain downtown. That effort appeared all but doomed late last week when The Ohio Supreme Court ruled the matter should have gone to city council first to pass an ordinance before the initiative could move forward.

But on Tuesday Toledo City Council approved sending downtown jail charter amendment language to the Lucas County Board of Elections, whose board members just recently rejected placing the measure on the November ballot. 

Now county officials will seek guidance from the Ohio Secretary of State as to whether the vote will take place within the next 60 to 120 days as required by city charter, or possibly in May as outlined in state code.

Assistant County Prosecutor Kevin Pituch said it’s not a matter of if a special election occurs, but when. The board may consider this during its upcoming meeting in November, he said.

 “They will do what theyre obligated to under the charter and under the Ohio Revised Code,” Mr. Pituch said.

However Mr. Pituch added that, even if voters approve the ballot measure, he does not believe a city-voter amendment can enforce where county officials construct a jail.

Board of election officials Wednesday did not have available an estimate on the cost of a special election.

Sean Nestor, a leader in the citizen group, said he is pleased the government is doing what it should, but regrets legal action was required to press the matter.

“Going forward, I hope that this pattern of cooperation with groups that are trying to initiate charter amendments, I would like to see more of that,” Mr. Nestor said.

Mr. Nestor requested the county halt any proposed  jail construction until the vote, but Commissioner Pete Gerken said that’s not happening.

The county owns a legal, properly zoned site along North Detroit Avenue. Leaders intend to continue their plan to build a new jail — a project that aims to improve the county’s criminal justice system — at that location, as the law permits, he said.

Before the downtown jail restriction question ever goes to the ballot, county voters in the November general election will weigh in on a 37-year, 1.37-mill tax increase request intended to fund construction at the North Toledo site.

When first presented with the downtown jail ballot measure, the board of elections unanimously voted not to place the proposed amendment on the ballot, saying it contained provisions beyond the citys authority to enact.

But without an accompanying city council ordinance, the elections board lacked from the outset the authority to send the measure to the ballot, according to the Ohio Supreme Court.

Board of elections member Dr. Bruce Saferin said if the language is proper and city council voted, he does not believe there will be a problem. Members work to follow legal and proper procedure, he said.

“If its changed and everyone agrees that its fine, that is our job to make sure everything goes correctly and is done correctly during an election,” Dr. Saferin said.

Separately, Nathaniel Livingston, Jr. filed a pro se measure this week with the Ohio Supreme Court asking the proposed  downtown jail charter amendment be placed on the November ballot. The justices ordered respondents, including the board of elections, must reply by Monday.

Keep the Jail Downtowns Joyce Slusher, back, and Anita Reynolds, front, give each other a high five during the city council meeting at One Government Center in Toledo on Tuesday.

Cindy Matthews, right, stands in protest after members of the Lucas County Board of Elections voted to exclude two initiatives from the November ballot during a special meeting on Aug. 28 at the Early Voting Center in Toledo.

Keep the Jail Downtowns Joyce Slusher, left, and Mary Dutkowski, right, react during the city council meeting at One Government Center in Toledo.

Dale Emch, city law director, left, talks to Keep the Jail Downtowns Rebecca Maxcy, center, and Mary Dutkowski outside the council chamber during the city council meeting at One Government Center.

Cindy Matthews, right, stands in protest after members of the Lucas County Board of Elections voted to exclude two initiatives from the November ballot during a special meeting on Aug. 28 at the Early Voting Center in Toledo.

Toledo City Council on Tuesday approved sending a citizen-led jail initiative for Lucas County Board of Elections consideration, reviving a possible vote on the new jail’s location.

Council met in executive session for about an hour during its regular meeting. It returned and unanimously voted in favor of the ordinance.

The move recognizes that Keep the Jail Downtown Toledo collected a sufficient number of signatures for a proposed amendment to the city’s charter. Such an amendment would state that a future jail remain within downtown limits.

Several Keep the Jail Downtown Toledo members in attendance expressed relief at council’s vote. 

“I’m hoping that the board of elections can get us on the ballot for Nov. 6, but that’s yet to be seen,” Mary Dutkowski said. “We’ve crossed a hurdle. I’m thankful to every member of city council.”

LaVera Scott, director of the Lucas County Board of Elections, said the effect of what council approved “would be a legal question, and Im not going to speculate.”

Voting starts Wednesday for the Nov. 6 election, and Ms. Scott said the jail proposal is not on the ballot. The next scheduled board of elections meeting is Nov. 5.

County officials picked a jail site along the 5700 block of North Detroit Avenue to replace the aging downtown Toledo facility. The $180 million project would also bring a behavioral health solution center.

The November ballot will include a proposed property tax to fund the work. Keep the Jail Downtown Toledo leaders hope that ballot, or a special election, will include their question as well.

After volunteers collected a sufficient number of voter signatures, the board unanimously voted not to place the proposed amendment on the ballot. Officials said if enacted it would contain provisions beyond the city’s authority to enact.

The Ohio Supreme Court last week declined to force the board to place the measure on the ballot. It ruled that without a city council ordinance, the board did not have authority to do so.

It was always the city’s intention to honor the will of the petitioners and move this process forward to the board of elections, said Dale Emch, law director. The city has acted with past practice and its charter, he said.

“I think what council did was try to honor the will of the petitioners, and they didn’t weigh in as to the issue itself but wanted to have this go to the voters to consider,” Mr. Emch said.

Toledo Councilman Chris Delaney said he was pleased council acted quickly following the Ohio Supreme Court decision. Many citizens worked hard to ensure this matter reached voters.


Posted in Toledo