Tish O’Dell is the Ohio Community Organizer for the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund. Tish works in multiple states and was recently featured in national and international press for her work with Toledo, Ohio residents and their passage of the Lake Erie Bill of Rights. She has worked on over 40 laws and county charters in Ohio. Of these, 12 have been put to vote and six have passed. She can be contacted at Tish@celdf.org.

In Columbus, Ohio officials have quietly allowed direct democracy to die during the pandemic

Too many local officials love it when their hands are tied. It allows them to escape accountability. We see this across the nation as local officials fein powerlessness over key demands, and instead blame state government or a legal technicality that limit their authority. This allows them to justify accomplishing nothing, or very little. Maybe they can implement implicit bias training for police officers, but will do little to fight for structural racism. Maybe they can “zone” a harmful project and sacrifice one neighborhood, but will not take on the hard work of challenging a system that keeps them from stopping the harm altogether.

Sometimes it goes beyond doing very little. Sometimes local officials will actively use their powerlessness, to justify opposing a local demand by residents, because the state has told them the issue is a “state issue,” and not for locals to weigh in on. In other words, they are “preempted” by the state from taking any action.

In June, we witnessed a clear example of this related to anti-fossil fuel activism in Columbus, Ohio, when they advocated against a local ballot measure to ban fracking waste in the local watershed.

Although members of the Columbus City Council have acknowledged residents’ concerns about the harms of industrial fossil fuel extraction and the injection of fracking waste, when asked by residents to take action, they claim to be  powerless to do anything. “I agree wholeheartedly that it is critical to protect our water from fracking and all other forms of contamination. The Ohio Supreme Court has ruled that local laws cannot be used to prohibit fracking or otherwise circumvent the state’s authority over oil and gas drilling,” stated City Council Pro Tem, Elizabeth Brown in an email to a community member. The local community group refused to accept this. They refuse to accept that they must simply sit by and wait for another public health crisis involving the shut down of their water supply due to toxins as happened in Flint, MI and Toledo, OH.

The system is constructed to disempower communities, to the detriment of people and the planet. That is why we need to fight back and why we need local elected officials with courage to fight with us… not against us!

Worse yet, in June attorneys for the city have actively opposed residents’ efforts to get a measure to protect the watershed from the fracking industry. A proposed Community Bill of Rights Charter Amendment for Water, Air, and Soil Protection and to Prohibit Fossil Fuel Extraction and Related Activities and Projects would ban the industry from activities that threaten the community water supply and assert an enforceable right of people and ecosystems to “clean water, air, and soil, and to be free from activities that would violate this right.”

Petitioners for the initiative were forced to suspend petition gathering March 12, 2020, due to the Covid-19 pandemic. They had secured almost 9,000 signatures to place the initiative on the November 2020 ballot, but because of the pandemic, they would not reach their goal. The deadline to turn in 9,870 valid signatures was June 18.

The group again went to their electeds for assistance. They asked the City Council to make the decision to place the initiative on the November ballot, which they have the authority to do. They refused. Then the people asked the council to simply extend the deadline and give them an additional three months to gather signatures when it is deemed safe. Again, the “people’s representatives” said no. So, residents sued the city in federal court, hoping to suspend the local signature deadline.

Rather than accommodate the democratic process during the pandemic, the city instead went on the offensive against the initiative arguing to the judge that the initiative “is not a legitimate subject for municipal regulation” and therefore the petition should not be allowed to move forward.

In the petitioners’ lawsuit, written by Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund attorneys, the petitioners showed the city could have taken action to safeguard democracy during the pandemic.

Instead, the city argued to a judge that “none of Ohio’s pandemic response regulations in any way change[d] the status quo about circulating,” and therefore there was nothing stopping petitioners from gathering signatures. They even went so far as to say that there were plenty of Black Lives Matter protests at City Hall and the statehouse where the petitioners could have collected signatures. The tone deaf response to the pandemic and its impact on the democratic process, let alone human life, is shocking.

Big Picture

Across the nation, states and corporate interests have devised a system of control that dampens the power of representatives closest to the people. Many of those officials are more than happy to be powerless. It’s not their “jurisdiction,” so it’s not their fault, they say. This gives them an excuse to not fulfill their duties to the people they supposedly represent.

From fossil fuel bans, new civil rights protections, police restructuring, new protections for workers and taxes on the rich, local officials across the nation often refuse to fight for the very people who they take an oath to protect.

They say the state won’t allow them. They say corporations or the Fraternal Order of Police will sue.

They are right. And that is the point.

The system is constructed to disempower communities, to the detriment of people and the planet. That is why we need to fight back and why we need local elected officials with courage to fight with us… not against us!

Not all elected officials are afraid to stand up for their communities, Nature and for what is right.

For example, Cathy Miorelli, a city councilperson my colleagues worked with in Tamaqua, Pennsylvania, once said, “State and local politics tried to shut me down, and I was threatened with lawsuits. But I was clear: I’d rather get sued than do nothing while my kids and my community were poisoned. I’d rather get sued than do nothing in the face of so much injustice.”

We need to see more local electeds using their power for political ends, to fight for emancipatory programs and a system of government that protects communities and Nature. The people and the planet need you—NOW.

Are you a local official or community group facing these challenges? Contact info@celdf.org.


Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

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