As of yesterday afternoon, the Columbus arena backsies initiative already had enough signatures verified to qualify for the ballot, which means local voters will go to the polls next May to decide whether to stop automatic payments on the $42.5 million in bonds the city and county sold to buy the arena from its private builders back in 2011. (Actually the county sold the bonds, but the city and county both committed to paying them off — here, read the whole convoluted process for yourself, if you dare.) Future payments would then need to be approved by voters in a second ballot measure in November — which means all legal hell is about to break loose:
If approved by voters, the coalition wants that second vote to occur in November.
The initiative is likely to face legal challenges. Franklin County, Ohio State University, the Franklin County Convention Facilities Authority and the state also were part of the arena purchase. Their contracts are not subject to the vote.
City Attorney Richard C. Pfeiffer Jr. and elections officials said they are trying to determine whether such a two-part vote can be put on the ballot with one set of petitions.
“We are still looking into the matter, but those are the right questions to ask,” Pfeiffer said.
Another question city officials are asking: Can voters legally overturn a contract that the city already has signed?
In that 2011 deal, Columbus also exempted the Blue Jackets from making their annual $9.5 million rent payments — adding up to a far bigger subsidy than the actual purchase price, even in present value — but that wouldn’t be affected by the May vote. (According to the petition, which the Columbus Coalition for Responsive Government finally got posted properly on its website.) Still, it would be unprecedented for a city to stop payments on an arena deal it already made, which is why Columbus and Franklin County elected officials are no doubt scrambling their lawyers as we speak.