Three Fulton County residents filed an objection with the Board of Elections Wednesday over a petition from NEXUS opponents requesting a county charter government.
BOE Director Melanie Gilders confirmed that the six-page objection drafted by Metamora attorney Charles M. Saunders was received about one half-hour before last Wednesday’s 4 p.m. deadline to file objections to the petition. It was signed by Saunders and county residents RJ Lumbrezer and Roy Norman.
The petition for a charter government was filed with the BOE June 24 and certified two weeks later. It was sponsored by five committee members of the Common Sense Energy Coalition: Liz Athaide-Victor, Lowell S. Bryan, John P. Ragan, Barbara J. Nelson, and Mary L. Foster. The organization said it wants a county government that gives residents a voice in what occurs there, and supports draft legislation specifically suited to local needs and issues.
The committee members’ petition evolved directly from opposition to NEXUS Gas Transmission and other pipeline companies, who they believe bully their way into communities, using lawsuits and other intimidating tactics against uncooperative residents. It contains 1,708 signatures, 1,493 of which were deemed valid. The final total exceeded the 1,084 signatures required.
In the objection, Saunders says the petition seeks to administer Ohio Revised Code Section 743.25 “by prohibiting corporate oil and gas extraction activities” within Fulton County. The section makes it illegal to pollute a running stream a municipality uses for domestic purposes.
Saunders argues that because administrative actions aren’t subject to initiatives, the charter request should be prohibited on the ballot.
The objection also challenges the petition on what it deems misleading language. Saunders writes that the petition wrongly “claims to be a charter establishing a ‘community bill of rights’ for Fulton County residents and natural communities, and protecting those rights by prohibiting gas and oil.” He also criticizes the petition’s advice that wells be securely capped at the end of production.
In the complaint, Saunders points out that ORC Code 1571.05 specifically describes applicable law about securing wells. “Without either referencing this section or what the relationship of these broad terms are in light of applicable law, voters could be confused (by the petition) due to vagueness,” he wrote.
The objection continues with a claim that the petitioners “ask the voters to adopt a conflagrated laundry list of rights and powers” without referencing current laws or those the charter could supersede or change. It says that’s a deception which places voters in a position where objectivity is not possible.
In his writing, Saunders also claims that, based on the ORC, the petition is an illegal referendum, and that it contains language of a wishful nature without legal effect.
Norman, the organization director for Fulton County’s Farm Bureau office, said he signed the complaint as a citizen, not because the organization that employs him generally supports pipelines and oil and gas exploration when parameters are met to protect citizens. He said his support backs his personal belief that charter government is detrimental to both the business of agriculture and how business in general is conducted in Fulton County.
“It has nothing to do with the pipeline. It has to do with the direction charter government would take the county,” he said. “I’ve been around government all my life, and I feel charter government is not the way to go. It’s not the answer to any problem.”
Norman said the local farm bureau does have legitimate concerns about pipeline installation. But he said the pipeline industry is regulated by federal law, giving charter government no jurisdiction in those matters.
“It’s a tough deal. We have a lot of members and landowners that are opposed to the pipeline, but at the same time the answer to the problem is not a charter form of government,” he said. “People have a voice now, and there’s a process to go through.”
A charter government would place county businesses in jeopardy, “and opens up the door for people to complain about the way we farm in Fulton County,” Norman added.
Lumbrezer agrees that charter government would harm, more than help, the county.
“These (charter) ideas came from outside the county. We don’t need people from outside our county coming in and changing our government,” he said.
Fulton County citizens already possess all of the rights the petitioners want, such as the right to confront someone in court who has damaged them, Lumbrezer said. A charter government would make it possible to file lawsuits at a whim, he said.
The petitioners’ sole goal is to prevent local pipeline installation or fracking, Lumbrezer said. And while he respects their views about those industries, their objections to the pipeline, and their concerns about property rights, “this charter form of government is not going to help them. All it’s going to do is tie up the courts in our county.”
Because he authored the objection, Saunders is presently bound by the Ohio Rules of Professional Conduct not to comment. However, in a July 2 letter to Expositor Editor Drew Stambaugh, written prior to drafting the objection, Saunders said attempts by the out-of-state Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) to change Fulton County’s government to a charter form is illegal and unconstitutional. He said, further, “(I)t will do nothing more than drain the stretched coffers of Fulton County, without conferring one iota of the benefit that its backers promise.”
Saunders said the group changes local law in communities to give the group access to sue in them. He said this is done knowing that the basis for the newly-created violations “is beyond the reach and control of these municipalities.”
Saunders wrote: “I am convinced that if the citizens of Fulton County knew the entire story, they would not have signed the petition to put the referendum on the ballot.”
Tish O’Dell, CELDF’s Ohio community organizer, said it’s a democratic right for county residents to petition for ballot proposals. Citing the counties mentioned, she said, “It’s interesting that they’ve collected thousands of signatures, and one or two people can protest to keep it off the ballot. They think their voice should somehow be heard above the thousands who want it on the ballot. How democratic is that?”
CELDF was spurred to file a writ of mandamus in Meigs County, where the county commissioners have refused to place a community charter proposal on the ballot. The motion, which is pending, would require the commissioners to fulfill their official duties.
O’Dell said the average citizen has been unduly stripped of all ability to change laws harmful to them by an elite minority, and are told to simply accept that fact.
“We have to wake up here to the fact that we’re the ones being harmed…and if we don’t challenge it, it won’t go away and it will get worse,” she said. “If we can’t ever propose a law, how can we change a law?”
Athaide-Victor said it seems coincidental that objections over community charter requests have also surfaced in Medina County, which is also along the pipeline route, and in Athens and Meigs counties, both located in the heart of Ohio’s gas and oil extraction industry.
“Why would you not want people to have a vote?” Athaide-Victor asked. “This is not fair. It’s not even opening it up for debate. It’s shutting it down.”
The Fulton County Board of Elections forwarded the objection to Secretary of State Jon Husted. He has 10 days from its receipt to determine whether the request for a community charter should be placed on the Nov. 3 ballot.
David J. Coehrs can be reached at 419-335-2010.