For three years, Ohio state government and the oil and gas industry have been relentless in their efforts to quash Community Rights. For three years, communities have not only pressed on, but built momentum, refusing to sacrifice their communities to industry. And for three years, CELDF has fought along their side, doggedly fighting for the people’s right to direct democracy through citizen initiative.
This fall, some of the people were victorious in their fight for democratic rights.
The Story Begins Here
The story begins in 2015 and 2016, when Athens, Medina, Portage, Fulton, and Meigs Counties worked with CELDF to draft Home Rule county charter initiatives. County residents, like hundreds of other communities across the state, are threatened by fracking infrastructure projects. In response, they advanced citizen initiatives to propose county charter forms of government. The charter initiatives included bans on fracking activities as a violation of communities’ rights to clean air and water, the right to local community self-government, and the Rights of Nature to exist and flourish.
In both years, Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted blocked the duly qualified measures, claiming “unfettered authority” to do so in 2015. (Husted receives campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry.)
In both years, the Ohio Supreme Court — while denying Husted’s claim to have authority to block the initiatives — kept them off the ballot based on ambiguous technicalities.
Ohio Legislators Get Slippery
Ohio legislators wanted to help the oil and gas industry stop the growing efforts to block fracking activities. In December 2016, they did what legislators do: They got slippery.
HB 463 was a foreclosure bill. Taking direct aim at Com- munity Rights initiatives, legislators quietly added a sec- tion granting the Ohio Secretary of State and the county Boards of Elections (BOEs) authority to invalidate citizen initiatives based on substantive content. (Husted ap- points the BOEs.)
The fall out was swift.
Advancing Rights in 2017
In 2017, Athens and Medina County residents advanced rights-based county charter initiatives that included fracking infrastructure bans. Youngstown residents — for the seventh time! — advanced not one, but two Community Rights initiatives. The first, to protect their water from fracking. The second, to protect their elections from outside interests.
And Bowling Green State University students led the charge in their City, working with CELDF to draft the state’s first Right to a Livable Climate initiative.
Athens, Medina, and Youngstown residents were thwart- ed by their own Boards of Elections. While the Athens and Medina BOEs skirted HB 463, the Mahoning BOE unfurled the HB-463-flag shamelessly. Each of the communities was stripped of their right to vote on their own ballot measures.
Heading to the Ohio Supreme Court
CELDF represented Athens and Medina residents in the Ohio Supreme Court as they challenged the BOEs decisions.
In the county cases, just as in 2015 and 2016, the oil and gas industry, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Farm Bureau submitted briefs on behalf of corporate interests. Regardless of the will of the people, industry and their allies are determined to site fracking infrastructure across Ohio. They are fighting like hell to keep residents from voting on charter governments that would protect the people from harms posed by fracking, pipelines, and injection of waste into their communities.
This year, however, there were two strong dissenting voices from the bench. Justices Fischer and O’Neill stated:
“I would hold that the Medina and Athens County Boards of Elections exceeded their authority and thereby abused their discretion in refusing to place the proposed county charters on the ballot. Whether the proposed county charters are constitutional are decisions for the courts, and as we have consistently held, those decisions should be made only after the election, if the measures pass.”
Next Up: Youngstown
Youngstown residents were determined to challenge their BOE decision as well. CELDF went with them to the Ohio Supreme Court.
The Court wrestled with the case for a month before reaching their 4-3 decision. The majority led the way in making history: This marks the first time that Youngstown residents were denied their inalienable and constitutional right to amend their City Charter.
The dissenting Justices reproached the majority, while addressing the invalid arguments presented by the Mahoning BOE. The Justices recognized the state legislature’s overreach with HB 463. The law, according to these dissenting Justices, violates separation of powers by allowing the Secretary of State and BOEs authority to determine the constitutionality of citizen initiatives. Determining constitutionality has long been understood to belong to the courts.
Meanwhile, under the mantra “We don’t lose until we quit!” these tenacious Youngstown residents march on- ward in their fight to protect their water. On Election Day, they began gathering signatures to place their Drinking Water Protection Bill of Rights on the May 2018 ballot.
Next Up: Bowling Green
Three hours west of Youngstown, Bowling Green residents also rallied together to protect their water — with Bowling Green State University students leading the way. When BGSU students learned about the proposed Nexus pipeline threatening the City’s water source and contributing to climate change, they didn’t hesitate.
“We quickly realized our City officials were not going to effectively protect us after attending a few of their meet- ings. It’s clear our state government isn’t going to protect us. And the federal government is supporting fossil fuel projects as fast as it can rubber stamp them,” said Brad Holmes, BGSU Senior and President of Environmental Action Group (EAG) on campus.
Students worked with Bowling Green residents and CELDF to draft a Right to Livable Climate citizen initiative. The measure bans pipelines and compressor stations as a violation of the right to a livable and healthy climate.
Challenging the Wood County BOE
This time, a BOE stood by the people’s right to vote. The Wood County BOE voted to place the Right to Climate initiative on the ballot. One resident challenged the decision, arguing in part that the substance of the initiative was unconstitutional and, under HB 463, should be kept off the ballot. When the BOE stood its ground, the challenger appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court.
Gaining Traction for Rights: Bowling Green Residents Declare Victory!
Following the growing numbers of dissenting judges in the county charter cases and the Youngstown case, CELDF and Bowling Green residents gained traction in their fight to protect citizen initiative, and their challenge to HB 463.
The Ohio Supreme Court refused to accept the resident’s arguments against the Right to Climate initiative. The Court struck parts of HB 463 down as a violation of the separation of powers, and ordered the charter amendment on the ballot.
The Court stated, “To the extent that [HB 463] authorizes and requires boards of elections to make substantive, preenactment legal evaluations, it violates the separation-of-powers doctrine and is unconstitutional.”
The Ohio Supreme Court affirmed the right of Bowling Green residents to vote, ordering their first-in-the-state Right to Climate charter amendment on the November ballot.
Ohio Community Rights activists and their allies are under no illusion that the advancement of rights is com- plete. “The current generation in government, and those ruling through corporations, seem oblivious to how their actions drive forward irreparable harm — including cli- mate change. They may not have to worry about being around for the catastrophic end of life as we know it. But my generation — we do. This is our future. And we’re in jeopardy,” said Daniel Myers, 2017 BGSU Graduate.
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Feature Image: Ohio State Office Building Supreme Court, Sixflashphoto, Creative Commons