Rights groups hope to achieve goals by altering state law


The Athens News

  • By David DeWitt, Associate Editor

A legal organization that has been working with a group of Athens County residents to put an anti-fracking county charter before voters the past three years is launching an initiative petition process for two Ohio constitutional amendments.

One seeks to assert the primacy of local self-government, while the other seeks to grant counties and townships the power of initiative and referendum.

The Pennsylvania-based Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (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.

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 office will have to certify the validity of the proposals before the process of collecting petition signatures can begin. The CELDF assisted in the drafting and legal review of both amendments, the press release said.

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.

“Today, only city and village residents can exercise their inalienable right to propose and repeal laws, which is recognized under Article 2, Section 1b of the Ohio Constitution,” the release said.

Nearly 39 percent of Ohio’s population resides in townships and counties (outside of municipal corporation limits), it said.

“They do not have the same constitutional right to legislate. This amendment extends equal rights to local self-government to all Ohio residents, regardless of jurisdiction within the state,” the release said.

In September of this year, for the third year in a row, the Ohio Supreme Court rejected a proposed county charter that otherwise would have gone to Athens County voters for consideration.

In July, the Athens County Board of Elections rejected the ACBORC charter as invalid by saying that a proposed executive council (comprising county elected officials who aren’t county commissioners) does not meet Ohio Revised Code requirements for a county executive under an alternative form of government.

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

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.

In a split decision, the Ohio Supreme Court rejected the charter with two justices concurring, three more concurring in judgment only, and two dissenting.

Like last year, the state high court rejected the charter saying it failed to provide for the exercise of all powers and duties of county government.

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.

“Since 2012, residents have advanced and adopted Community Bills of Rights laws to codify their democratic and environmental rights, and stop the harms,” the release said. “Government officials, the courts and industry have stepped up their efforts to quash citizen initiative and quell community resistance.”

Similar efforts by government and industry are taking place across the country, the release said, and residents in other states are also responding by insisting on their democratic and environmental rights via local laws and state constitutional amendments.

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.

In 2014, according to the CELDF felease, Colorado was the first state to advance a Community Rights amendment, and in 2015, Oregon did the same. In 2016, and again this year, New Hampshire is advancing a similar amendment, the release said. With the submission to the AG’s Office, it said, Ohio joins them.

“For years we have tried to protect our communities from harmful corporate projects. Today, we understand why we can’t get what we want: We are blocked by a system designed to force the harms in against our will,” said Greg Pace, a member of the OHCRN. “It is a system that refuses to recognize our right to govern our own communities. The Community Rights Amendment is the people’s way to change that.”

Tish O’Dell, CELDF’s Ohio organizer, said the matter goes beyond fossil-fuel industries.

“The right to pass local laws regarding fracking, gun control, predatory lending, minimum wage, and more, are thwarted by state preemptive laws. And those laws are often written by industry,” she said.

Communities are at a point now where the heart of the problem is not fracking, pipelines or development, she said, but 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.