Westerville City Schools Secretly Coordinated Opposition to Tax Cut Issue
Contrary to their public claims, Westerville City School District (WCSD) Superintendent Dan Good and school board president Kevin Hoffman actively coordinated with local attorney Eugene Hollins to remove a tax cut measure from the November ballot. Official WCSD emails obtained by Media Trackers reveal Bricker & Eckler, LLP worked with Good, Hoffman, and Hollins to kill the Taxpayers for Westerville Schools (TFWS) ballot issue for weeks before the WCSD board voted to enlist Bricker & Eckler’s aid.
A proposal to roll back property taxes submitted by TFWS with help from the 1851 Center for Constitutional Law was approved by the Franklin County Board of Elections on August 20, to appear on the November ballot as Issue 52. Two days later Hollins, a Westerville attorney employed by a number of central Ohio government entities, submitted a challenge of the issue to the elections board.
Hollins was supported in his Franklin County Board of Elections complaint by an August 31 memorandum from WCSD, whose board voted on August 27 to retain Bricker & Eckler for any potential legal assistance related to Issue 52. Although Hoffman indicated no legal proceedings had occurred prior to that date, emails obtained by public records request prove the allegedly spontaneous political maneuver had been in the works for weeks.
On August 28, ThisWeek Community News reported, “the board does not plan to initiate any action related to the repeal, board president Kevin Hoffman said, but board members thought it was important to have lawyers ready to answer any questions or take any action that might be required.”
Emails show the superintendent and school board president consulting with Hollins and Bricker & Eckler as early as August 14, as they crafted a plan to disqualify Issue 52 before it was certified by the Franklin County Board of Elections.
On August 14, Hollins wrote to Hoffman and Good, asking, “[i]s Bricker working on a challenge to keep the ‘repeal’ off the ballot[?]”
“There is a strong argument that Section 5705.261 does not apply to Section 5705.192 replacement levies,” Hollins explained. “It may take a mandamus action directly filed with the Supreme Court to get a decision, but they will rule before the ballots have to be printed.”
Superintendent Good replied moments later, writing, “I’ll ‘tap’ Bricker with this information. Thanks, Gene.”
Less than ten minutes after that, Good informed Hollins, Hoffman, WCSD treasurer Bart Griffith, and Westerville Area Chamber of Commerce president Janet Davis that Bricker & Eckler attorney Becky Princehorn “said she’ll look into it and get back to me ASAP.”
“Keep digging, Gene,” the WCSD superintendent added. “I’m lovin’ believin’ it may just be possible. That little bit of hope goes a long way in my position.”
Davis chimed in with a response mistakenly sent only to Good. “Great thought Gene,” she wrote. “We appreciate your efforts!”
Later that afternoon, Princehorn wrote Good and Hoffman a note laying out her thoughts on Issue 52, mentioning she was “concerned this would be an uphill battle, costly in community relations as well as legal fees, for the reasons outlined below.”
Among the counter-arguments for Hollins’s proposed line of attack, Princehorn listed several that were later used by Maurice Thompson of the 1851 Center for Constitutional Law in his attempts to keep Issue 52 on the ballot.
“A replacement is an increase in rate, the effective rate, which is the rate that really matters to taxpayers,” Princehorn wrote. “RC 319.301 (HB 920) requires a reduction factor to be applied to a replacement levy in the first year as if it were a new levy – why would that be necessary if a replacement wasn’t a tax increase?”
“The underlying levies were an increase when originally passed,” Princehorn added.
Both the Franklin County Board of Elections and Ohio Supreme Court ultimately sided with Hollins and WCSD, removing Issue 52 from the ballot because the millage of the 2009 levy targeted by TFWS equaled the statutory – though not the effective – total millage of the levies it replaced.
The morning of August 15, Princehorn emailed Hollins her guidance, closing with, “We’re looking into this more fully at Westerville’s request.”
Hollins replied, “if (a) another group or a taxpayer has standing and (b) the Board does not want to publicly undertake a legal challenge to the repeal petition, let me know. I can understand why the Board may not want to bring this challenge, but we may not want to let the opportunity pass by.”
“Will keep you in the loop, Gene, once we finish fleshing this out,” Princehorn wrote in an email to Hollins later that morning.
On August 16, Princehorn sent Good and Hoffman a more complete analysis of the case, concluding, “Based upon this assessment we suggest that you consider the cost to litigate this matter both in terms of dollars and public reaction to pursuit of a legal claim that lacks a significant chance of winning.”
“An alternative course of action for your consideration would be for a School District taxpayer to file a letter of protest prior to the Board of Elections meeting on Monday, August 20 at 3:00 when it will formally accept petitions,” the Bricker & Eckler attorney wrote.
In response, the WCSD superintendent wrote the WCSD school board president that afternoon. “Go with the alternative, which is to file a letter of protest. To fight the repeal on a technicality has bad karma written all over it.”
Bricker & Eckler then drafted a letter of protest for Hollins – who WCSD leadership claimed was acting completely independent of the district – and Hollins submitted a complaint to the Franklin County Board of Elections at WCSD’s request.
According to WCSD executive director of communication & technology services Greg Viebranz, the total legal cost incurred as a result of efforts to block the TFWS ballot measure is still unknown.
Ohio Revised Code 9.03 (C)(1)(e) dictates that public funds may not be used to “[p]ublish, distribute, or otherwise communicate information” which “[s]upports or opposes the nomination or election of a candidate for public office, the investigation, prosecution, or recall of a public official, or the passage of a levy or bond issue.”