Dick McGinn with petitions

Dick McGinn carries petitions to the Athens County Board of Elections in this file photo from May 2017.

For the third year in a row, the Athens County Board of Elections has rejected as invalid a proposal to create a county charter government. The rejected charter proposal also would incude strong regulations discouraging oil and gas development in the county.

The board accepted the validity of the petition signatures Monday morning, but rejected the charter proposal itself as invalid on the grounds that it did not include a county executive position required under Ohio Revised Code statute for alternative forms of government.

Members of the Athens County Bill of Rights Committee who submitted the petitions said after the unanimous vote that the elections board erred in its decision. They charged that the charter proposal falls under Ohio constitutional guidelines and not the Ohio Revised Code statute that covers alternative forms of government.

The ACBORC argued that charters formed under the state constitution are distinct and separate from alternative governments established under Ohio Revised Code.

Members of the county Board of Elections said, on the other hand, that charters formed under the state constitution must still conform with the laws for alternative government put forward in the ORC.

ACBORC spokesperson Dick McGinn called the decision a "travesty" and said that the group will file a protest with the elections board. The Board of Elections would then be required to bring the matter to the Athens County Common Pleas Court within three days of the protest being filed.

A full story with complete arguments on both sides will appear in Thursday's edition of The Athens NEWS.

As with the group's previous two initiatives, this charter proposal doubles as an effort to keep oil and gas horizontal hydraulic fracturing (fracking) out of Athens County, through the use of local water for fracking operations. It also would prohibit future fracking waste-injection wells, of which Athens County already has several in operation.

Last September, for the second year in a row, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that a proposed anti-fracking charter amendment for Athens County would not appear on the county’s general-election ballot. The amendment, in addition to setting up a charter form of government, and containing drilling/fracking-related prohibitions similar to those submitted Tuesday. The provision prohibiting the use of local water would substantially curtail or prevent any future local fracking, which uses an immense amount of water.

So far, the deep-shale oil-and-gas boom hitting other parts of eastern Ohio in recent years hasn’t extended into Athens County, and it’s an open question whether it ever will.

The same Ohio Supreme Court decision also tossed out similarly crafted charter amendment petitions for Meigs and Portage counties. The high court did the same thing in 2015 to charter amendment petitions for Athens, Meigs and Fulton counties, but for different reasons.

Both years, the cases reached the Supreme Court (and before that, lower courts) after appeals of decisions by county boards of elections and the state Secretary of State rejecting the petitions.

IN THE LATEST PROPOSAL, the ACBORC has attempted to address the Supreme Court’s concerns by more explicitly outlining the plan for government.

For each county office, the proposed charter states that “the duties of (each office, respectively), and the compensation therefore, shall continue to be determined in the manner provided by general law, except as may be further specified by this Charter, or as shall be established by ordinance or referendum.”

The charter further provides that the county Commissioners act with legislative function (which they don’t currently), and that an executive function shall consist of seven elected officials sitting on an “Executive Council,” having the authority to approve or veto ordinances proposed by the commissioners.

The charter does not propose to change the number and functions of elected county officials, and all offices, departments, agencies and their employees also will remain in place.

“However, the charter will empower the county Commissioners and Executive Council to pass ordinances which could affect county offices, departments and agencies,” a brochure says.

On Monday, members of the elections board rejected the argument that the president of the executive council would constitute a "county executive" as required by ORC statute on alternative forms of government.

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