Organizers make last-ditch effort to get anti-fracking initiative on ballot

The group Columbus Community Bill of Rights has been trying for four years to place an anti-fracking proposal on the Columbus ballot. [Jonathan Quilter/Dispatch file photo]
 
The Ohio Supreme Court is being asked to reconsider whether a proposal to ban oil and natural gas extraction and waste disposal in Columbus should go on the Nov. 6 ballot.

Last month, the Franklin County Board of Elections denied the environmental group Columbus Community Bill of Rights’ effort to get the measure on the ballot, questioning its legality. The group filed a complaint with the Ohio Supreme Court, which ruled with the Board of Elections.

″(The Board of Elections members) are limited to counting signatures and making sure the forms are filled out right. They’re not allowed to consider the substance of the proposal,” said Terry Lodge, a Toledo-based attorney who is representing the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund.

Last week, in a last-ditch effort, the group filed its motion for reconsideration with the state Supreme Court.

“They’re looking for every reason to keep us off the ballot. This is our only recourse,” said Carolyn Harding, a co-organizer for Columbus Community Bill of Rights.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking. Military and overseas absentee voting began Sept. 22. Early in-person voting and absentee voting will begin Oct. 10. With each passing day, there’s less time to launch a public-awareness campaign about the issue, Lodge said.

“The group is sort of in suspended animation,” he said. “They don’t know whether to campaign or put up signs or what.”

The proposed ballot initiative would make it illegal to drill for oil and natural gas in Columbus, as well as store or dump drilling waste in the city or transport waste across the city. A “bill of rights” also would assert that residents should have clean water, air and soil that are free from fracking waste in central Ohio. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources regulates oil and natural gas exploration and operation at the state level.

The Ohio Supreme Court can uphold its initial ruling or decide to place the measure on the ballot, but there’s no timeline for that to happen.

If history is any indication, the court could rule in favor of the group, but just days shy of Election Day:

‒ About two weeks before the May 8 primary, the state’s high court ruled in favor of a similar measure proposed by a Youngstown environmental group to get on the ballot. More than 1,000 early voting ballots already had been mailed back without the issue appearing on them, according to news reports. That measure failed in the primary — the seventh time it was rejected — but will return on the Nov. 6 ballot.

‒ Last year, the court agreed to put an initiative on the ballot in Bowling Green, just 17 days before the election that asked voters whether there should be future pipelines. Voters rejected it.

“The court could ironically act for the people, but effectively cripple the campaign,” Lodge said, noting that election campaigns are supposed to be about having a dialogue about the issues. “You miss the candidate forum nights with the League of Women Voters. You also miss the opportunity to ask candidates what they think of the proposal.”

This is the third time the Columbus group has worked to get its measure on the ballot.

In 2015 and 2017, not enough signatures were collected. However, in this latest effort, the group collected 12,134 signatures, easily clearing an 8,990-signature requirement. The city of Columbus signed off on the initiative July 30.

Jackie Stewart, state director for Energy in Depth, a research and education organization financed by the oil and gas industry, said she is confident the proposed Columbus ban issue won’t make it on the general election ballot.

“The Ohio Supreme Court has ruled on this and ruled it wasn’t going to go on the ballot,” she said.

Stewart pointed to the Youngstown initiative that will go to voters for an eighth time.

“In Youngstown, the voters have spoken on this issue,” she said. ”(The group) likes to claim this is a matter of democracy. The democratic process has occurred seven times in a row.”

Stewart said her organization calculated the cost to bring the Youngstown proposal to voters the first six times at more than $185,000, and that doesn’t count the 2017 general or 2018 primary elections. “It’s abuse of taxpayer funds, no questions,” she said.

When asked about environmental concerns that have been raised in Columbus, Stewart said, “There’s no fracking going on in Columbus. Laws are already on the books that protect the environment.”

If the Supreme Court doesn’t rule in favor of the Columbus Community Bill of Rights, the effort would have to start all over again, Lodge said.

“That’s what drives multiple repeat initiative campaigns,” he said. “Because people are up against the wall with few options.”
 
 
Beth Burger, The Columbus Dispatch, September 30, 2018 
Organizers make last ditch effort to get anti-fracking initiative on ballot