County government change proposed

Environmental activists with proposed natural gas pipelines in their sights are now gunning to establish a charter government for Fulton County.

Last Thursday, the county’s commissioners unanimously approved a petition requesting the proposal be placed on the ballot in the Nov. 3 general election. A charter government–which permits elected county officials to create legislation more suited to the needs of the community–would replace Fulton County’s present form of government regulated by the Ohio Revised Code.

The petition for a charter government was sponsored by a committee of the Common Sense Energy Coalition (CSEC), comprised of local opponents of proposed pipeline installation, specifically the NEXUS Gas Transmission pipeline.

Received by the county Board of Elections June 24, the petition contains 1,708 signatures, 624 more than were required. The board certified the petition’s validity and sent it to the county commissioners July 6 to be approved in resolution form. Now certified, it returns to the board for placement on the November ballot.

BOE Director Melanie Gilders said placement on the ballot would be held up if a formal protest is filed. In that case, the proposal would be sent to Ohio Secretary of State John Husted to decide its fate.

Gilders said during her tenure as BOE director, “We haven’t had a petition like this filed.”

Liz Athaide-Victor, a Swanton area resident and CSEC committee member, is also a vocal opponent of NEXUS. She said the request for a charter government was born directly out of the current pipeline controversy.

“People would have a say about the kinds of things going on in the county,” Athaide-Victor said. “We just don’t want to see a repeat of (NEXUS) – any industry that could come in and disrupt people’s property rights or have a negative effect on the environment.”

She argued that, to date, any type of industry can locate to the county and be proven harmful to multiple neighborhoods.

The charter proposed by CSEC was developed by the Pennsylvania-based Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF). According to the non-profit organization’s website, it provides legal services to communities facing threats to their environment, agriculture, local economy, and quality of life.

Tish O’Dell, CELDF’s Ohio representative, said the charter would permit all Fulton County residents the opportunity to propose local law by an initiative.

“It’s to allow the people to have a say and a vote. All we’re trying to do is get the people’s voice heard,” she said. “A democracy supposedly by the people should have laws that impact them directly.”

A charter government would also give the county commissioners the ability to pass laws, O’Dell said. “They’re like an arm of the state. If they want to protect the people of the county…this gives them a leg to stand on,” she added.

And that’s what CSEC would like: an additional tool the commissioners can wield while dealing with major corporations whose operations could cause environmental harm, said John Ragan, one of the coalition’s committee members. He said the power to draft legislation locally could help secure the quality of the county’s air, water and land.

“It would alleviate the pressure these corporations seem to exert on people,” Ragan said. “The general public in the county would, in fact, be able to have a vote, and the commissioners wouldn’t be put in that position.”

Only two Ohio counties presently operate under charter governments. Summit County became the first, adopting a charter in 1981 and replacing its commissioners with an 11-member council, eight of whom represent specific districts. Cuyahoga County reverted to a charter government in 2009, led by a County Executive.

Athaide-Victor said CSEC’s proposed charter model would leave the structure of Fulton County’s government intact.