THURBER: Another equal access win for OH watchdog group

By   /   November 2, 2012  /   Comments Off on THURBER: Another equal access win for OH watchdog group

By Maggie Thurber | Special to Ohio Watchdog

CITIZEN WATCHDOGS: The Northwest Ohio Conservative Coalition put pressure on the Toledo Public School District to ensure signs for and against a proposed tax increase were available at its office.

Fresh off its win against the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library, the Northwest Ohio Conservative Coalition focused its attention on the Toledo Public School District to gain equal access to distribute campaign signs.

Both the library and TPS have levies on the ballot this November. The library had a pro-levy splash page on its website, which it removed after NWOCC, a political action committee, requested equal access. The library also was distributing pro-levy campaign signs from all its branches.

John McAvoy, NWOCC board member, wondered if the school district was doing the same thing.

He went by the TPS administration building and learned that individuals could request a pro-levy sign and a TPS employee would go to a room, unlock a door and distribute the signs. That was Tuesday, the same day TPS was holding a news conference regarding some bond refunds.

McAvoy said he didn’t know about the news conference, but decided to attend. During a question-and-answer session, the news crews asked how the bond refund would affect the levy on the ballot. McAvoy then asked, “Speaking of the levy, are you aware that YES materials are being distributed out of this building? And will you agree to distribute the NO on the Levy signs?” McAvoy described the reaction as “panic” before the subject was changed back to the bond refund.

Following the news conference, McAvoy was approached by several of the news crews, and a pro-levy supporter who accused him of lying. But McAvoy had proof — and he offered to show one television reporter the first of several, 45-second clips which showed people coming into the administration building, signing in, being directed to a room where they were handing out the YES signs.

McAvoy, and the reporters, were invited into TPS Treasurer Matt Cleland’s office where it was eventually agreed that TPS would provide equal access to levy opponents and distribute the anti-levy signs as well as allow them to be posted next to pro-levy signs at various school properties around the city.

But that wasn’t the end. “About 5 p.m.,” McAvoy said, “I got a call from Mr. Cleland. He said their legal department didn’t like this at all, and I could come by and pick up the signs in the morning.”

McAvoy agree to pick up the signs, but warned that if TPS withdrew from what had been agreed upon, NWOCC would issue a news release explaining how the group tried to work with TPS to avoid an equal access lawsuit by having the schools distribute both sets of signs in the same manner, but that TPS refused. He also warned that a lawsuit would be filed.

“I further explained that any lawsuit would be a lose-lose for both of us,” McAvoy said, telling Cleland that “TPS will get a staggering black eye, and me, you and all the Toledo taxpayers will get stuck with a staggering legal bill for TPS attempting to fight a legal battle that your legal team should have known was unwinnable.”

After further consultation with district attorneys, Cleland called McAvoy on Wednesday and said that not only would TPS honor the agreement to distribute the signs and allow them to be posted on school properties, but that after the election they would “issue a policy that prohibits this type of activity in the future.”

In return, McAvoy agreed to work with TPS to identify paths for funding that must include a performance audit. One of the reasons for opposition to the TPS levy was the lack of a performance audit conducted by the Ohio auditor to help identify potential savings and efficiencies prior to asking for a new levy from residents.

McAvoy, who participated in a Citizen Watchdog training session in Toledo earlier this year, said, “When people see their government doing something wrong or inappropriate, they need to speak up, and speak out. Remaining silent is granting permission to continue.” NWOCC helped sponsor that training.

He said the interactions with the library and TPS have led to an increased awareness of how wrong it is to use the public resources to promote levy campaigns. “These uncontested violations had been going on for so long, they had become the accepted methods and procedures,” he said.

“The library and TPS are embarrassed because they’re handing out signs telling the people to vote against their levy,” he added. “I can guarantee that they will never allow themselves to be put in this situation again.”