Fulton County residents will not vote on a charter government Nov. 3 because the submitted proposal flies in the face of state law, according to Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted.
In a seven-page decision released Thursday, Husted contends the petition filed with the county Board of Elections June 24 by the local Common Sense Energy Coalition (CSEC) violates the manner in which a charter government must be organized. The ruling also says the proposal runs roughshod over court decisions concerning the rights of oil and gas companies operating in Ohio.
The CSEC petition was born directly of the group’s opposition to the NEXUS Gas Transmission pipeline and similar pipelines proposed to run through Fulton County. Liz Athaide-Victor, a member of the CSEC committee that helped draft the petition with the Pennsylvania-based Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), said a charter government was sought to give county residents a louder voice in local issues. She also said a charter government offers an opportunity to keep out industries that threaten citizens’ property rights and negatively affect the environment.
A month after being filed, the petition was challenged by a formal objection by county residents Charles Saunders, RJ Lumbrezer, and Roy Norman. Drafted by Saunders, a Metamora attorney, the complaint argued, in part, that the county has no jurisdiction over gas and oil exploration in Ohio, and that misleading language in the petition would confuse voters about the issues.
Because an objection to the petition was filed, Husted was required to render a decision on whether the petition would be included on the November ballot.
He determined the Fulton County petition, and similar petitions filed in Athens and Medina counties, circumvents state laws already in place. He cited two specifically: Ohio Revised Code Section 307.94, which describes the requirement necessary to implement a charter government; and Code Chapter 3.01, which gives the state authority over municipalities in the case of gas and oil exploration.
He said the first regulation clearly mandates that a charter government must include the election or appointment of a county executive to oversee procedures. The CSEC petition called for retention of the present county government consisting of commissioners, a prosecutor, and an auditor, among other elected positions.
“The unavoidable truth is that the Athens, Fulton, and Medina petitions simply fail to adhere to the Revised Code’s clear requirements for a legally constituted ‘alternative form of government,’” Husted wrote.
He cited the latter regulation as prohibiting local government from wielding power that “discriminates against, unfairly impedes, or obstructs oil and gas activities and operations” the state currently regulates, including fracking and the installation of natural gas pipeline.
Husted said while the petitioners seek to boost the authority of local government, court rulings support state law that asserts “(t)he grant by a county charter of this municipal power may not…come into conflict with any constitutional provision.”
He said, furthermore, “Common sense, and the law, both dictate that a county charter may not grant to a county more authority than a municipality in Ohio can have pursuant to the Ohio Constitution. Yet that is exactly what the restrictive ‘fracking-related’ provisions of these charter petitions propose to do.”
For the aforementioned reasons, he has invalidated the Athens, Fulton, and Medina petitions and refused their placement on the general election ballot, Husted said.
Terry Lodge, a Toledo attorney representing Fulton County’s opponents of NEXUS, said it’s likely he’ll take his challenge of Husted’s decision to the Ohio Supreme Court sometime this week.
“The position he’s taking on this…is flatly wrong,” Lodge said. He said Husted’s language in his decision is “pretty monarchial. It’s a little bit ‘I am the king’ in flavor.
“This should be a concern to Ohio voters everywhere. The problem when you overreach…is that you end up with somebody saying, ‘I get to call the shots.’ Democratic decision making is not the area where you get to say…I get to change 212 years of constitutional law in Ohio.”
Lodge suggests the state’s actual agenda is to prevent citizens from discovering through an organized effort how weak Ohio’s regulations are concerning matters of oil and gas exploration.
“There’s a great deal of concern the overwhelming number of voters will reject pipelines and fracking, and then what will they do?” he said.
Tish O’Dell, CELDF’s Ohio organizer, said citizens have a constitutional right to alter, reform or abolish governments when deemed necessary.
“What’s interesting is…(Husted) is looking at statutory law,” she said. “We’re talking about constitutional rights. It should be higher law than anything the legislature passes. How are we supposed to alter or reform our government when the very government the people are trying to alter or reform can block their efforts on the ballot?”
O’Dell believes state statutes insist on a county executive overseeing a charter government because that position can be controlled.
“They don’t like our charter because it gives more power to the people. The people with the power don’t want to give up any of the power,” she said.
Charles Saunders did not return calls for comment.
David J. Coehrs can be reached at 419-335-2010.