Council to Consider Bill of Rights Again for Fall Ballot

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – City Council will consider a measure next week whether to place the Community Bill of Rights charter amendment on the ballot for a fifth time.

The amendment calls for banning hydraulic fracturing and other related oil and gas operations within the city limits. If council members approve the ordinance on the agenda of Monday night’s meting, the amendment would be on the ballot in time for the general election in November.

It would be the fifth time that the charter amendment has appeared before voters. Each time, the measure was defeated. During the May primary, the proposal lost by a margin of 15.7%

“This is not about Youngstown,” says Susie Beiersdorfer, one of the backers of the charter amendment. “This is a movement about people being heard.”

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources has jurisdiction over all oil and gas development in the state, and officials have said that this authority trumps any municipal or county ordinance, and a community bill of rights would be unenforceable.

“We’re told that we have no power here,” Beiersdorfer says. “I think it’s a lot more than a fracking problem. It’s a democracy problem.”

Activists oppose the process of hydraulic fracturing – a procedure that injects water, sand and chemicals at high pressure to stimulate oil and gas wells drilled in tightly packed rock formations such as Ohio’s Utica shale. They also seek an end to Ohio’s wastewater injection wells, which store contaminated “fracking” fluid deep into the earth. In 2011, an injection well in Youngstown was linked to a series of earthquakes and was shut down.

Opponents of the industry say that hydraulic fracturing and the continued use of injection wells would contaminate the area’s water supply and cause other environmental problems.

Local business groups, labor organizations and public officials have supported developing the oil and gas industry and have successfully lobbied against the Community Bill of Rights initiative each time its appeared before voters. They say that the industry has created much-needed jobs in the region, providing opportunities for vendors, manufacturers and tradesmen.

Last week, Ohio Sec. of State John Husted invalidated three county charter initiatives that included anti-pipeline, injection well and fracking provisions, saying these initiatives attempted to circumvent state law. Those initiatives would not appear on the ballot on Nov. 3.

“The issue of whether local communities can get around state laws on fracking has already been litigated,” Husted said in a statement. “Allowing these proposals to proceed will only serve a false promise that wastes taxpayer’s time and money and will eventually end in sending the charters to certain death in the courts.”

Residents of Fulton, Medina and Athens counties, backed by the Community Environmental Defense Fund, filed a lawsuit Thursday against Husted with the Ohio Supreme Court.

“The people’s right to initiative is being trounced by our own Secretary of State, who was clearly ‘moved’ by the arguments of the oil and gas industry [perhaps their funding as well], yet not by the very people who elected him,” James Kinsman, an attorney representing the three counties, said in a statement.

Beiersdorfer says Husted’s decision has no impact on the Youngstown Community Bill of Rights initiative.

“The difference is that the counties were trying to get home rule and obtain a charter,” she says. Youngstown already has home rule, and citizens have the right to support ballot initiatives to amend the municipal charter.

Beiersdorfer says supporters of the Community Bill of Rights amendment obtained 1,800 signatures, more than enough to place the measure on the ballot. The Mahoning County Board of Elections has certified those signatures.

“Citizens go through procedures that are laid out by the government,” she says. “This is our working through the system to try to make changes. It’s really about people waking up to the fact that government is not protecting our safety.”

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.