Supreme Court nixes Meigs 2016 charter proposal

By Michael Johnson -

OHIO VALLEY — The Ohio Supreme Court on Tuesday said it will not force a proposed 2016 charter initiative to be placed on the Nov. 8 ballot in Meigs County.

The ruling, a 6-1 majority, affects a measure seeking to prohibit the disposal of fracking waste, as well as ban the use of water for the fracking process of oil and gas drilling. The decision also impacts similar initiatives in Portage and Athens counties.

Just last week, the Supreme Court issued an 4-3 opinion on a similar 2015 Home Rule charter, which also includes bans on the aforementioned fracking activities in Meigs, stating the county board commissioners must place a proposed Home Rule charter amendment on the Nov. 8 general election ballot, overruling a Fourth District Court of Appeals decision. This occurred after a series of missed deadlines and an exchange of letters between the Meigs County Commissioners and the board of elections attempting to determine the validity of signatures and wording of the initiative.

The Meigs County Commission complied with the opinion during its regular weekly meeting last Thursday by approving a resolution to place the 2015 Home Rule measure on the ballot, but a protest filed by a Meigs County resident that same day argues initiative doesn’t meet the requirements for establishing a form of government. The protest essentially sends the matter to Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, who rejected a similar measure last year.

In Tuesday’s ruling, separate from the 2015 opinion, the justices said they did not agree with the argument of charter supporters that the pre-election review process of the charters violates the First Amendment. The court noted that the 2015 decision recognizes the authority of elections officials to decide if a charter initiative meets the requirements for it to be placed on the Nov. 8 ballot.

“It’s good that the process is working,” said Meigs County Commissioner Randy Smith. “It’s painstaking. There is a system to everything. (The 2016 charter) is still missing the qualifying paragraph that must have language about how a county executive is established — whether or not they will be elected.”

Supporters of the 2016 charters in Meigs wanted the Supreme Court to force the respective election boards and Husted to place the charter initiatives on the ballot. Election boards in all three counties, including Meigs, ruled that the 2016 measures were not valid.

According to Tuesday’s ruling, the Supreme Court sided with the Ohio Secretary of State that the proposed charters didn’t meet the state law requirements for a form of government. Husted had argued that the charter proposals in each county failed to enumerate “all the duties” of elected officials, citing that requirement under Ohio law – and the Supreme Court agreed.

Residents worked with the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund — a nonprofit, public interest law firm providing free and affordable legal services to communities facing threats to their local environment, agriculture, economy and quality of life — to draft the charters, relying on last year’s Ohio Supreme Court decision as a guide in redrafting the measures.

Justice William O’Neill was the lone dissenter Tuesday, arguing that the people’s right to create their own form of government is being quashed.

“The secretary of state does not have the power to veto charter petitions on behalf of the oil and gas industry simply because the citizens did not pick exclusively from the two forms of county government delineated in R.C. 302.02.3 This is a usurpation of power from the people that we should not indulge.”

Tish O’Dell, community organizer for CELDF, said, “the people’s right to alter or reform their government is meaningless when the same government that the people want to alter, acts as gatekeeper, restricting access to direct democracy as they so choose.”

She said communities across Ohio are facing fracking, wastewater injection wells, LNG pipelines and compressor stations they don’t want. They are finding no remedy in their state government and are turning to their constitutional right of initiative to protect their communities from fracking related harms.

“Last year, we advanced rights-based county charter initiatives in Athens, Medina and Fulton counties,” said Dick McGinn, of Athens. “The Supreme Court determined they could not go on the ballot due to a technicality in the format. Yet they remained unclear in defining exactly what was required.

“We drafted new charters this year, using the ambiguous direction given by the Supreme Court. One has to wonder: How convenient to deny there are clearly articulated rules on creating a charter, and then avoid providing clarity. The Secretary of State and our judiciary can interpret vague guidelines as they wish, leaving the people chasing a moving target and unable to vote on their own county initiative, year after year.”

Smith said the Meigs Board of Commissioners plans to acknowledge Tuesday’s ruling during their regular 11 a.m. Thursday meeting at the courthouse.

By Michael Johnson

Reach Michael Johnson at 740-446-2342, ext. 2102, or on Twitter @OhioEditorMike.

Reach Michael Johnson at 740-446-2342, ext. 2102, or on Twitter @OhioEditorMike.