By Bill Lyons
A lawsuit seeking a temporary suspension of Columbus’ one-year petitioning time limit due to the pandemic was dismissed by the U.S. District Court for Southern Ohio on April 14, 2021. The lawsuit was filed in June 2020 by our group, Columbus Community Bill of Rights (CCBOR), arguing that the city’s time limit during the COVID-19 pandemic was unconstitutional and placed a severe burden on ballot access for our initiative, which sought to ban harms from the fracking industry within Columbus and it’s watershed area.
Every person should have a right to clean water, clean air, and safe soil. CCBOR has been fighting for this right for the residents of central Ohio since 2014. The oil and gas industry has contaminated many communities’ water and the environment with the disposal of toxic, radioactive waste. There are currently 13 injection wells in the central Ohio watershed area which are actively taking frack waste that can contain more than 1000 chemicals, in addition to radium 226 and 228. Both of these isotopes of radium are water-soluble and known carcinogens. Radium 226 will remain radioactive for thousands of years – jeopardizing many future generations. Our proposed Community Bill of Rights city charter amendment would assert the right of people and ecosystems within Columbus to “clean water, air, and soil, and to be free from activities that violate this right.”
Our group was about nine months into our fourth campaign, having collected nearly 9,000 signatures towards the 9,870 valid signatures needed, when the pandemic hit our community. Not wanting to risk the health of our volunteers and the general public, we suspended our signature gathering campaign in early March 2020. Next, we appealed to the Columbus City Council to suspend the one-year deadline and let us resume our campaign when it was deemed safe to collect signatures again. They refused using the following quote as their rationale: “The City Attorney’s office reviewed your request to extend the petition signature timeframe and determined that neither the Mayor nor Council have the power to override the charter, even during an emergency.”
Next, I wrote to the city attorney, Zach Klein, and city council, and pointed out that Sec. 22 of the city charter, Emergency measures, states, “The council may, by a vote of six of its members, pass emergency measures to take effect at the time indicated therein. An Emergency measure is an ordinance or resolution for the immediate preservation of the public peace, property, health or safety, …” I argued that our request qualified for an emergency measure for the immediate preservation of the public peace, health, and safety and requested city council use this measure to suspend all current petitioning campaigns in Columbus throughout the duration of the Governor’s Stay-at-Home order. Any campaign’s unused time could be resumed once it was safe to collect in-person signatures again. So, in essence, there would effectively not be more than one year to collect signatures and, hence, not violate the City Charter. (City Council invokes this charter provision almost every council meeting to pass spending measures and declare emergencies so that the measures do not get any hearings.) Neither the city attorney nor city council ever responded to my request.
Next, our group asked city council to put our charter amendment on the ballot and let the people decide since we could not effectively continue our signature gathering without endangering the general public and ourselves. Again, they refused, so we were left with no choice but to sue the city. Our lawsuit asked for a preliminary injunction and/or temporary restraining order in turning in our signatures, and to extend the one-year deadline. It argued that the city’s one-year deadline on signature gathering is unconstitutional given the COVID-19 pandemic because it effectively kills ballot access.
During arguments concerning our lawsuit, the city attorney’s office stated that we should have been collecting signatures during the pandemic at the Black Lives Matter and Reopen Ohio protests at the statehouse. They stated that since the governor and the health commissioner’s stay-at-home orders exempted free speech activities, there was nothing preventing us from collecting signatures during this time. So, basically, the city attorney’s office was saying we should be willing to risk our health and the general public’s health for our democratic, constitutional right of citizen initiative. However, meetings for Columbus city council and the Franklin County Commissioners now take place online as they consider in-person, public meetings unsafe. In addition, Ohio government departments have taken action to safeguard public health by extending deadlines for license renewals, tax filings, etc. during the pandemic.
In August 2020, the City of Columbus filed a motion to dismiss our lawsuit arguing the “City also has a legitimate interest in requiring signatures to be collected within a one-year period to ensure that proposed Charter amendments have a modicum of support prior to placing them on the ballot.”
Here it is important to note that before 2014, Columbus had no time limit on petitioning. Also, no other city in Ohio has a one-year time limit on signature gathering for initiative. In 2014, Columbus created a city charter review commission that recommended a number of amendments to the city charter. One of these changes was to limit the length of time for citizen initiative campaigns to one year, thereby, stifling direct democracy. This provision was wrapped up into a lot of other recommendations that were put on the ballot in November 2014 by the Columbus City Council, which recommended passage of these measures and they were subsequently approved by voters.
Also, in the motion to dismiss, the city claimed the “one-year deadline ensures that petition signatures will be timely—meaning the petition was signed by voters who still live in Columbus and support the initiative.” This is a bogus claim since the Board of Elections will validate all signatures – whenever they are turned in – to see if they are from registered voters currently residing in Columbus.
In the ruling on April 14, 2021, the judge agreed with the city citing “the need to avoid overcrowded ballots, decreasing fraud and to ensure timely review by both election officials and the judiciary.” What does this really say about democracy and our government? The following quotes, taken from a CELDF Press Release, interpret the significance of this decision.
“What the 6th Circuit has revealed yet again is that real democracy by the people will not find justice in the courts. Justice is reserved for the elite 1% and corporate ‘persons’ in Ohio,” stated Tish O’Dell, CELDF Organizer.
“Rather than rewarding the responsible, rational, caring behavior of our group to suspend our in-person signature gathering during the pandemic, the city and the court have acted punitively against us, and in so doing have said it is better to act irresponsibly and carelessly regarding the public’s health in order to preserve procedure,” stated Bill Lyons of the community group.
“CCBOR volunteers followed CDC guidelines to stay out of crowds and maintain 6 feet distance in order to prevent spreading or becoming infected with the deadly COVID-19 virus. Nearly 19,000 Ohioans have died. Rather than support and stand for Columbus voters’ right to home rule and the Columbus Community Bill of Rights initiative that protects our drinking water from radioactive frack waste dumping in our watershed, they have used every tactic in the book to block our citizen initiative from the ballot. This is corruption at the core!” reacted Carolyn Harding, one of the group’s original organizers.
“The Columbus City Council was wary enough of the pandemic to move to online public meetings and continues to meet virtually now. It’s too bad that they care so little for the health of people that they think we relinquish our right to petition unless we go out and get within arm’s length of hundreds or thousands of strangers to collect signatures.” – Charlotte Owens, Petitioner
“Wake up, Ohioans. Our laws are designed to ensure the failure of citizen initiatives. That is why immensely popular proposals that manage to break through the blockades inevitably face last-minute legal obstructions. By backing nonsensical pop-up laws, Ohio’s judges show their hand. They, too, are eager to keep citizen initiatives off the ballot.” – Sandy Bolzenius, Petitioner.
Bill Lyons, is a co-organizer of CCBOR and president of Ohio Community Rights Network (OHCRN). This letter was originally published in the Columbus Free Press on May 9, 2021.