A Huron, Ohio, woman pleaded guilty to falsifying petitions last year — in connection with a special taxing district in Delaware County — and was given a fine and probation in Delaware County Common Pleas Court on Friday.
Colleen Mann, 57, entered a guilty plea to a charge of falsification, a first-degree misdemeanor, Friday afternoon. She had previously pleaded not guilty to a charge of election falsification, a fifth-degree felony. As part of plea negotiations with prosecutors, the falsification felony was dismissed and replaced by the misdemeanor falsification charge.
After she pleaded guilty, Delaware County Common Pleas Judge David Gormley imposed a $500 fine, 20 hours of community service and one year of probation.
She testified that Berkshire Township resident Jeremy Rito signed a petition on behalf of his ill spouse in order to place a measure on the May 2015 ballot to give township residents an up-or-down vote on the creation of a Joint Economic Development District on the site of an outlet-store shopping mall which is now scheduled to open later this month. Mann testified that she let Rito take the petition into his wife’s room and had her sign it, which violates Ohio law requiring petitioners to witness each signature.
Mann told Gormley she knew she should have crossed the signature off the petition but thought it would be rude to do in front of the family. She said she forgot to cross the signature off before she submitted the petition. She told Gormley she was sorry for the mistake.
“We have no reason to believe that it was anything other than a mistake,” said first assistant county prosecutor Kyle Rohrer during the hearing.
The Delaware County Board of Elections, which forwarded information to the sheriff’s office that led to an investigation of the petitions, invalidated two part-petitions based on the allegedly invalid signatures, putting the ballot measure five short of the 130 needed to be placed on the May 2015 ballot.
Questions over the validity of the signatures and whether Mann knowingly allowed Rito to sign on behalf of his spouse sparked a legal battle that made its way to the Ohio Supreme Court last year.
However, the Ohio Supreme Court ordered the elections board to recalculate the number of valid signatures, thus placing the issue on the May 2015 ballot.
Intially the Board of Elections suspected the signature for another township resident, Ralph Davis, was actually signed by his wife, Joyce Davis. Rohrer clarified Friday that they were not part of the criminal charge because the handwriting analysis was inclusive. However, Rohrer said that Mann admitted to not being in the room for Mrs. Rito’s signature when first interviewed by deputies from the Delaware County Sheriff’s Office.
The establishment of the Joint Economic Development District was upheld by an 80 to 20 percent margin by voters in the May 2015 election.
Ground was broken on the mall in late June 2015. It is scheduled to open June 24.
The Joint Economic Development District allows Berkshire Township to levy an income tax on the site of the outlet mall. The tax is administered by the city of Delaware.
Morgyn Cooper is an intern for The Gazette. Glenn Battishill contributed to this story.