The Ohio Attorney General’s Office has certified two petitions for proposed amendments to the Ohio Constitution put forward by a group that has advised Athens County residents on proposed anti-fracking county charter efforts the past three years.
The AG’s certification clears the first hurdle for the Pennsylvania-based Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) to begin efforts to collect the more than 305,000 signatures needed to bring the two proposed amendments to Ohio voters.
One amendment seeks to assert the primacy of local self-government, while the other seeks to grant counties and townships the power of initiative and referendum.
“Without passing upon the advisability of the approval or rejection of the measure to be referred, but pursuant to the duties imposed upon the Attorney General’s Office […] I hereby certify that the summary is a fair and truthful statement of the proposed law,” Ohio AG Mike DeWine wrote in his letter of certification.
The CELDF assisted the Athens County Bill of Rights Committee (ACBORC) in its legal arguments with proposed charters in 2015, 2016, and 2017. None of those charter proposals ever reached the ballot in Athens County, having been struck down each time eventually by the Ohio Supreme Court.
Once the summary language and initial signatures are certified, the Ohio Ballot Board must determine if the amendments each contain a single issue or multiple issues.
The petitioners must then collect signatures for each proposed amendment from registered voters in each of 44 of Ohio’s 88 counties, equal to 5 percent of the total vote cast in the county for the office of governor at the last gubernatorial election in 2014.
Total signatures collected statewide must also equal 10 percent of the total vote cast for the office of governor at the last gubernatorial election.
In a press release earlier this month, the CELDF announced that the organization, working through the Ohio Community Rights Network (OHCRN), submitted two proposed state constitutional amendments to the Ohio Attorney General.
The proposed “Ohio Community Rights Amendment” codifies the right to local community self-government, enabling local governments to protect and expand fundamental rights and prohibit corporate activities that violate those rights, the news release stated.
“It also secures the authority of communities to put in place stronger environmental rights and protections than those recognized at the state, federal or international level,” the release said.
The proposed “Initiative and Referendum Amendment for Counties and Townships” extends the right to initiative and referendum to residents living in townships and counties, the release said.
Ohio Revised Code gives sole regulatory authority over oil and gas activities, including drilling and storage, to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Mineral Resources Management.
Opponents of the community bill of rights movement in the Ohio Legislature and elsewhere contend that without the uniformity in oil-and-gas regulation provided by state law, the industry will struggle to abide by a patchwork of different regulations throughout the state. That will impede job creation, economic development, cheaper energy, and property rights, they argue.
The CELDF release said that communities across Ohio are faced with fracking, liquefied natural gas pipelines, compressor stations, and other fossil-fuel projects threatening clean air, water and soil.
Tish O'Dell, CELDF's Ohio organizer, said the matter goes beyond fossil-fuel industries to the heart of basic democracy.
“The constitutional amendment to establish and protect the right to local community self-government, takes direct aim at corporate exploitation of communities, and elevates communities to be the lead protectors of public health, safety, and welfare,” she said.
In a post on Tuesday, the pro-drilling Marcellus Drilling News, a website that follows the oil and gas industry in Ohio and elsewhere, slammed the CELF’s two proposed Ohio amendments.
“The net effect of passing them would be to shut down Utica Shale drilling in many locations, and block pipelines in most locations,” the MDN argued in its post. “Passing these initiatives would bring chaos and disaster to the state. We seriously doubt Ohio’s politicians will let it happen, but then we just suffered through eight years of Barack Hussein Obama and a Congress that refused to make him obey the law. So anything can happen, which is why we’re raising the alarm.”
Other critics of community bill of rights efforts have pointed out that allowing unfettered local control could result in very conservative local initiatives that conflict with state or federal law getting approved locally.
In an interview with The Athens NEWS last January, Albany area resident Jimmy Stewart, a former state representative for this area, questioned the idea that local control is always a good thing.
“Should ANY language or proposal no matter how ridiculous be allowed to go on a local ballot for a vote?” he asked. “What if that language directly contradicts or attempts to override state or federal law? Language contained in these so called ‘county charters’ seems to directly contradict state law and even suggests that it trumps state law, federal law and international agreements. Is that kind of system really a good idea? If you think about it, there are plenty of counties in Ohio where (given that same authority) very conservative voters could pass local laws that progressives abhor. Local control versus statewide uniformity is not a new debate and won't be going away anytime soon.”
Stewart serves as president of the Ohio Gas Association and also sits on the Meigs County Board of Elections. – Athens NEWS Editor Terry Smith contributed to this article