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‘Ford-like’ mayor could be removed in Ohio

Little-used law allows cities to oust misbehaving mayors.

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford has smoked crack, made startlingly crude sexual remarks, knocked over a female co-worker, and blamed some of his behavior on “my drunken stupors” — yet he’s still the mayor, largely because he hasn’t been convicted of a crime.

What would happen in Ohio? Officials here say local governments have a patchwork of varying rules and ordinances dealing with misbehaving public officials, but added that there’s a rarely used state law that would allow a city to remove a “Ford-like” mayor.

“There are Ohio Revised Code sections that provide procedures for getting rid of officials who are not behaving properly,” said Susan Cave, executive director of the Ohio Municipal League. “There also are a number of cities and villages with charters that may have their own provisions for discipline or removal. And some charter cities have recall procedures where you can go to the ballot and vote them out of office.”

Section 3.07 of the ORC says anyone holding state, municipal, county or township office has committed misconduct in office if they are “guilty of gross neglect of duty, gross immorality, drunkenness, misfeasance, malfeasance, or nonfeasance,” among other actions. That finding can lead to a hearing in which the person forfeits their office.

“There’s been some mischief at (the state legislature), but I do not believe we’ve had a Toronto situation with a city here,” Cave said.

Local cases

Most recalls or removals locally involved political stances, not misbehavior.

The most recent case occurred during the 2012 election campaign when Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted ousted Dennis Lieberman and Tom Ritchie Sr. from the Montgomery County Board of Elections.

Lieberman and Ritchie — both Democrats — took a stand against Husted’s directive eliminating weekend early voting. Husted responded by suspending them, saying they could disagree but had to enforce his directives.

“There’s a statute that authorizes him to remove people for misfeasance,” said John Cumming of the county prosecutor’s office. “They sued in federal court and lost. Judge (Walter) Rice essentially said that’s Husted’s discretion (under the statute) and he can do that.”

Moraine and Centerville have each seen mayors go through public recall elections since 2000. Moraine’s case became a near-soap opera, as Bob Rosencrans was recalled in 2007 and replaced as mayor by Sonny Johnson. A separate 2008 recall aimed at knocking Rosencrans out of his council seat was nixed because of problems with the validity of signatures on those petitions. Then in 2008, Johnson himself was recalled, with Rosencrans being re-elected mayor in 2009.

In Centerville, residents unhappy that the city council allowed an auto repair shop to expand in their neighborhood gathered almost 1,000 valid signatures to trigger a recall election against Mayor Sally Beals in 2003.

“The year they had the (recall) election was the same year she was going to be on ballot anyway in November,” Cave said. “I thought that was a waste of taxpayers’ time and money. She won the recall rather handily, but she got voted out at the general election. The whole thing was bizarre.”

Even arrests don’t always lead to a removal action. Montgomery County Commissioner Deborah Lieberman was arrested for drunken driving in very public 2008 incident, but there was no formal call for her to step down.

Procedures vary

The state has varying rules for removing officials, up to and including impeachment, though that can be applied only to judgeships and state offices. Throughout Ohio history it has rarely been invoked.

Long-time political journalist Thomas Suddes said most officeholders who commit impeachable offenses resign first. In fact, the last impeachment came in 1808, when lawmakers tried to oust two state supreme court justices and a trial court judge. Lawmakers were irked over a court decision that established judicial review of legislative decisions. Samuel Huntington resigned as a supreme court judge to become governor and the other two judges escaped impeachment when the Ohio Senate narrowly failed to reach the required two-thirds majority vote on the question.

Procedures also vary within cities and counties.

“We have all of these county boards, and each one has its own statute,” Cumming said. “Some of them say you can be kicked off for good cause. Some of them say you can be kicked off at the will of the appointing authority. I don’t think you’re going to find any (blanket county rule) where a person can be thrown off for this or that. … It’s a real mish-mash.”

In some cities, the bar for a removal action is decidedly lower than elsewhere.

Centerville, for example, was able to trigger a recall election for a mayor with just 974 signatures; doing the same thing in Dayton would require 23,403 signatures. That’s because Dayton’s charter language requires approval of 25 percent of registered voters. For context, only 16,137 people voted in Dayton’s race for mayor this month.

Despite the differences, Cave said she thinks letting individual cities set their own rules is better than having a statewide standard for dismissal of officials. Cumming said in a perfect world, voters solve these situations.

“It’s different if you’re currently committing a crime and you get caught, like (ex-Washington D.C. mayor) Marion Barry,” he said. “Ford’s not being convicted of anything. It’s distasteful, and presumably he’d never get re-elected. … But who knows? Barry got re-elected.”

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