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Former council member claims O’Fallon ballot ordinance violates city charter

On Jan. 23, the O’Fallon City Council voted to put six charter amendments on the city’s April 7 ballot. However, former council member Jim Pepper says the bill used to place those amendments on the ballot violates not only the city charter but the Missouri Constitution and could be at risk to legal challenge.

Pepper served as a Ward 2 council member from April 2010 to April 2016. Additionally, he says he “was one of the authors of the City Charter in 2008.”

He bases his claim on the fact that the bill authorizing the ballot measures contains more than one subject. Pepper also has said the April 7 measures will be confusing to voters because the ballot wording does not have enough information. 

O’Fallon’s Director of Communications Tom Drabelle disagreed. 

On Feb. 20, he refuted Pepper’s claims, saying: “This ordinance fully complies with the city charter and Missouri state law. It obviously deals with just a single subject – giving O’Fallon voters an opportunity to consider updating their city charter for the first time in 10 years – and that subject is clearly expressed in the title. This is exactly the way the law establishes as the appropriate manner to present the issue of proposed changes to the city charter to our voters. We encourage each resident to thoroughly examine the proposed amendments and inform themselves on the nature of each proposed charter change.”

Bill No. 7167.1 [now Ordinance No. 6645] was sponsored by Mayor Bill Hennessy and includes proposed charter changes to institute term limits for the mayor and city council members, update legislative procedures, tighten ethics requirements, reinforce merit system employment practices, clarify procedures related to budget adoption and bonds, provide for broader participation in the initiative and referendum process, and adopt gender-neutral language.

Pepper said he had spoken during citizen comment sessions at council meetings in December 2019 and January 2020 to outline concerns about the proposed changes. 

Some of his suggestions were followed, in that revised Bill 7167.1 had the city charter change proposals separated into six ballot questions, instead of lumping all of them all into one set of generalized changes as was in the original version. The proposed changes now to be voted on are Proposition T, Proposition I, Proposition P, Proposition C, Proposition G and Proposition E.

However, in speaking to Mid Rivers Newsmagazine in mid-February, Pepper clarified his view that three major problems still remain with that already-passed bill:

Per O’Fallon City Charter section 3.10 E, “No ordinance, except those making appropriations of money and those codifying or revising existing ordinances, shall contain more than one [1] subject which shall be clearly expressed in its title. Ordinances making appropriations shall be confined to the various subjects and accounts for which monies are appropriated.” 

Pepper said Bill 7167.1 contains six different subjects [term limits, legislative procedures, ethics requirements, merit system practices, budget procedures, and initiative/referendum process]. He said that bill clearly violates the city charter.

Pepper also cited a 1994 Missouri Supreme Court decision officially titled “Hammerschmidt v. Boone County,” where the court found a Boone County bill in violation of the Missouri constitutional rule against introduction or passage of bills containing more than a single subject.  The single-subject rule was intended to prevent “log-rolling” many topics through in one complicated bill. Other governmental bills in Missouri have been thrown out in subsequent years because of that same rule. 

Pepper said that because Bill No. 7167.1 contains multiple subjects, the bill is in violation of the Missouri Constitution and thus, is vulnerable to being thrown out from a court challenge.

He said the ballot language from the bill will not include enough information for the voters to know what they actually are voting for.  For example, Proposition T reads: “Shall the amendments to Articles 3 and 4 of the O’Fallon City Charter proposed in Ordinance NO. 6645 to establish term limits for the mayor and city council members of O’Fallon be approved?” The voter can choose “yes” or “no.”

However, Pepper said the voter will not know from that wording what the term limits are to be. Will they be two terms? Four terms? Will the limit be the same for mayor and council members? The ballot wording does not say.

Another example he cited is Proposition I. Its wording simply reads: “Changes to the initiative and referendum process.” With “yes” or “no” options but without stating what the actual changes are to be. 

Pepper asked if voters now are to be expected to dig into the O’Fallon website to find prior council meeting agendas and the attachments for Bill 7167.1, in order to determine what the proposed changes actually are. 

“Of course, they really can’t do that while in the voting booth on April 7,” he said.

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