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Wednesday, October 9,2013

Group plans to try anti-fracking ballot measure again next year

By David DeWitt
Photo Credits:
Photo Caption: This graphic, created by the Bill of Rights Committee, shows what would be the geographic range of a fracking ban if a number of area communities adopt an aquifer protection ordinance.

A local citizens group that was unable to get a fracking ban ballot initiative to voters this November is now promising to re-write its proposed ordinance and put it to voters next year.

In an exchange of letters last month, members of the Athens County Board of Elections declined to elaborate on their reasons for rejecting the proposed ordinance from the Athens Bill of Rights Committee, which had collected the requisite number of petition signatures.

In August, three election board members voted unanimously to sustain an objection to the citizens' ballot initiative that would have banned deep-shale oil and gas drilling and waste-disposal activities in the city, as well as expressing an intention to penalize fracking polluters upriver from Athens.

The objection to the BORC's anti-fracking initiative was filed by a separate group of Athens residents represented by local attorneys John Lavelle and Rusty Rittenhouse.

Following the board's decision, an attorney from the southern Pennsylvania-based Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, on behalf of the BORC, wrote a letter to the elections board seeking a written explanation for the decision.

On Sept. 19, the elections board issued a response, though it didn't provide any specific reasons for the members' votes.

"We are aware of no legal obligation to respond to your request in the manner in which you have specified," stated the letter signed by board chair Helen Walker and members Aundrea Carpenter-Colvin and Ken Ryan.

The BORC issued a press release Monday slamming the elections board for declining to place the issue before voters after the required number of "valid signatures had been submitted to the city auditor and verified by the BoE staff."

The BORC filed a number of Freedom of Information Act requests with the elections board to collect every public document related to the matter.

In the release, the BORC wrote that the elections board owes it to the public to specify which objections raised by Lavelle and Rittenhouse they used to justify keeping the issue off the ballot.

"The implications of the (elections board's) policy of silence in relation to future citizen petitions is cause for concern," the BORC warned. "It means the (elections board) can sustain any protest against any future initiative petition, regardless of its contents, without justifying its decision. This implication cannot be allowed to stand."

In the FOIA request, the BORC asks for written, printed, digital and/or audio documentation related to the matter including, "correspondence, letters, agreements, reports, records, quotations, memoranda, telephone call slips, information stored in computers, teletype messages, internal memoranda, notes, reports, records of meetings, conferences, or telephone or other conversations or communications, computer printouts and computer stored data, emails and all other forms of electronic messages."

They requested this information dating from the filing of their initiative petition with the city of Athens auditor on April 4.

"Using the information thus obtained, BORC intends to rewrite the proposed Ordinance, collect the requisite number of signatures, and place another anti-fracking initiative before the voters in 2014," the BORC press release concluded.

BORC spokesperson Richard McGinn said that the FOIA request was sent by registered mail this past Friday.

Asked what changes the BORC plans for the proposal, or if potential changes include altering controversial language about the city's "jurisdiction" under Ohio Revised Code, McGinn said Tuesday, "We are not yet prepared to say what changes will be made. We need information about the process at the BoE before we can be comfortable revising what we thought was a good ordinance."

One of the stated concerns about the proposed ballot initiative is that it seems to defy state law that restricts regulation of oil and gas drilling and other activities to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, and that likely would be a main focus of any legal challenge if local voters were to approve an anti-fracking ordinance.


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