By David Skolnick
Members of a group seeking to ban fracking in the city collected enough signatures for the charter amendment to be on the Nov. 5 ballot, but it could be tossed if the Mahoning County Board of Elections supports a protest not to certify the proposal.
The board will have a hearing at 5 p.m. Friday to determine the validity of the proposed charter amendment language.
The Youngstown Community Bill of Rights Committee, which is backing the amendment rejected by city voters in May, filed petitions with 2,450 signatures. It needs at least 1,562 valid signatures to be on the November ballot.
A count by elections board employees found 1,621 valid signatures — only 59 more than the minimum to be placed in front of voters.
But the Mahoning Valley Coalition for Job Growth and Investment, a group that helped defeat a similar Youngstown anti-fracking amendment in May, hired Lavelle and Associates to challenge the legality of the proposal.
The Athens law firm successfully persuaded the Athens County Board of Elections earlier this month not to certify a similar citizen-organized proposal for the city of Athens’ November ballot. That success is why the firm was hired, said Tony Paglia, vice president of government affairs for the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber, which is playing a role in coordinating the objection effort.
Lavelle was “the first one to do this, and they’ve already done the research,” Paglia said.
The Youngstown protest was filed on behalf of five city residents: George Popovich of East Florida Avenue, Tom Loney of Burma Drive, Rosemary Miller of West Indianola Avenue, Robert M. Ogden of Heather Lane and George Cintron of Greeley Lane.
Lavelle’s firm argued in Athens that the anti-fracking ballot proposal, with language similar to the Youngstown initiative, was too far-reaching and not enforceable since oil and gas drilling is controlled by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.
“The board is requested to conduct an evidentiary hearing and declare that the petition is not valid or sufficient and therefore refuse to certify it for the fall 2013 election ballot,” wrote Robert R. Rittenhouse, an attorney with the Lavelle firm who filed the protest with the Mahoning County Board of Elections.
Two board members — Vice Chairman David Betras, who also is the head of the county Democratic Party, and Republican Tracey Winbush — are members of the Mahoning Valley Coalition for Job Growth and Investment, and have publicly urged voters to reject the anti-fracking amendment in May and for people not to sign petitions to get the proposal on the November ballot.
Board Chairman Mark Munroe, who also is the county’s GOP chairman, had asked fellow Republicans to support oil and gas drilling in opposition to an anti-fracking rally in Warren in late July.
“There are concerns” about conflicts with board of elections members, said Susie Beiersdorfer, a member of the Youngstown Community Bill of Rights Committee. “We know Tracey Winbush and Betras are part of the board of elections and the [coalition] and the coalition hired this firm. This [protest] is an outrage to the Youngstown community. This attempt to suppress the democratic process and our fundamental right to vote is unacceptable.”
But board of elections members say just because they don’t support the anti-fracking proposal doesn’t mean they won’t be objective at next week’s hearing.
“It’s not about my personal feelings,” Winbush said. “This is about filing a protest, hearing both sides and making a decision on what is presented. I have to be impartial despite my opinion on this subject.”
“When we meet as a board, we’re required to take our political hats off and abide by our oath to uphold state law,” Munroe said. “We have done that before. We deal with political issues often. If I have to disqualify a Republican for violations of elections law, then I do so. This is no different. It’s not a hearing on whether the board members think this is a good idea or a bad idea. It’s about whether this complies with state law.”
In Athens County, one elections board member recused herself because she signed a petition in support of banning fracking before she was selected to serve on the body.
“Signing petitions shouldn’t be grounds to recuse yourself,” Munroe said. “Circulating petitions could be a problem or serving as treasurer of a candidate’s campaign committee.”
Youngstown voters rejected a similar charter amendment in May, 56.85 percent to 43.15 percent.
The bill of rights committee will have its second public town-hall-style hearing on the proposal at 7 p.m. Thursday at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Youngstown, 1105 Elm St.