State constitution panel has 'hobbling start'

Judicial elections, term limits and altering the partisan process for drawing legislative and congressional districts are among the issues involved.
MCT Regional News
Jan 27, 2014

After getting off to what many see as a frustratingly slow start, the Ohio Constitutional Modernization Commission has a key year ahead to determine if it will fulfill the promise of prompting changes to the state’s major founding document.

Though the panel was created 25 months ago, the wait continues for recommendations on vital issues, including judicial elections, term limits and altering the partisan process for drawing legislative and congressional districts.

Commission committees didn’t organize until May or June of last year and have since held just a handful of meetings.

“The beginning was remarkably slow. It took forever for commissioners to be appointed,” said Catherine Turcer of Common Cause Ohio, a veteran advocate who has kept a close eye on the redistricting hearings.

The 32-member commission consists of 12 lawmakers and 20 public members. Pushed by Speaker William G. Batchelder, R-Medina, it is designed to give the state’s constitution a thorough polishing, similar to what was done in the 1970s, by making recommendations that lawmakers can place on the statewide ballot.

Batchelder and others saw it as a better alternative than a constitutional convention, which voters rejected in 2012.

Rep. Mike Curtin, D-Marble Cliff, who was recently appointed to the panel, says it’s off to a “ hobbling start.”

Curtin and others, including public members who did not want to be named, noted that the commission is hindered because, unlike the one formed in the 1970s, this one is co-chaired by lawmakers instead of public members.

“Unfortunately, in this environment, everything is more partisan,” Curtin said.

He and others said Senate leaders were unhappy that, until last week, both co-chairs were from the House, “so they were throwing tacks under the tires for a while.” Curtin and others also noted that requiring public members to be reappointed every two years doesn’t help.

“It reinforces the message — don’t do anything without checking in,” Curtin said. “It reinforces that the legislative members and leadership are going to hold real tight rein.”

Also stalling progress: An executive director for the commission hasn’t been hired yet.

“If you don’t have one person who’s tasked to oversee this enormous undertaking, it’s nearly impossible to get the job done,” Turcer said.

Commission co-chairs announced five months ago they would begin accepting applications for an executive director. What’s the holdup?

“That is a complex question,” Batchelder said. “That will be taken care of.”

Sources have indicated that the selection was narrowed to two candidates, Columbus attorney John “Chip” Elam and Megan Cummiskey, a Legislative Service Commission staff attorney. Each told the Dispatch there has been no indication when a decision will be made.

Are more interviews needed? “I don’t think so,” Batchelder said. “We had a number of people who were well-qualified.”

But Senate President Keith Faber, R-Celina, said, “It may be time for them to re-interview and explore other options for folks. … I’m just concerned that whoever is picked have the confidence of both sides and someone who has some gravitas.”

The commission has no staff of its own. A hodgepodge of legislative staffers from both parties has been handling various duties, leaving no single voice to speak for the commission, issue legal opinions or set priorities and schedules.

Some members say that has added to the frustration. Getting the two political parties, or House and Senate Republicans, to work together is a challenge.

Asked about the commission’s progress, Faber said it’s a “question we’ve been asking as well. We are very concerned that the (commission) get to the business of business. I would like to see 2014 be fruitful.”

The commission has time to act — it is designed to work for 10 years, ending July 1, 2021. One public member noted that the panel wants to be deliberative when considering such important matters.

That same member also said it’s important to show progress this year.

Rep. Vernon Sykes, D-Akron, the former commission co-chairman, said he thinks the panel is ready to make headway, particularly on redistricting.

“I am somewhat concerned about the progress that’s been made, or lack thereof,” he said. “It’s taken awhile to coordinate and collaborate with the four caucuses and community members.”

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By Jim Siegel - The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio (MCT)

©2014 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)

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