By David Skolnick
A “community bill of rights” that would reaffirm the rights of city residents to pure water and clean air as well as ban fracking in Youngstown returns to the ballot.
In May, a similar effort failed 56.85 percent to 43.15 percent. But that was with 15.7 percent turnout in the city during the May primary. Turnout in the city is typically higher in general elections than primaries.
The language in front of voters for the Nov. 5 election is the same as the May proposal with one change. The new proposal exempts manufactured products, including the sale of components and materials used in gas and oil exploration, from the proposed ban. That would include the seamless pipes manufactured at the $1.1 billion Vallourec Star expansion facility.
“We clarified that businesses like Vallourec Star and other businesses that manufacture, produce or sell components used” in fracking can continue to operate, said Susie Beiersdorfer, a member of the Youngstown Community Bill of Rights Committee, which backs the charter amendment. “It’s about exercising our community’s rights to drink clean water and breathe clean air. It’s really about taking our democracy back.”
But others see it differently.
“It’s still a very anti-business charter amendment,” said Tony Paglia, vice president of government and media affairs for the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber, a key player in the group working again to defeat the ballot proposal. “If you pollute, you can be sued whether it’s big business or a small business or someone driving a car, and anyone can take legal action. It’s a bad amendment. It would stifle the increase in our economy, jobs and investment. If it passes, there will be a perception that we are not a business-friendly community.”
Lynn Anderson, a Youngs-town Community Bills of Rights Committee member, said, “The industry says, ‘This is about jobs and shutting down businesses.’ But it’s about taking our democracy back. If we want to attract people to this area to live, we need to promote clean air and clean water.”
The chamber hired a law firm last month to challenge the validity of the citizen-initiated charter amendment in front of the Mahoning County Board of Elections. Four minutes before the start of the hearing, the hearing was canceled by the chamber’s law firm.
Paglia has said the reason was a “concern over board of elections conflicts of interest and board member recusals.”
Two of the four elections board members serve on the Mahoning Valley Coalition for Job Growth and Investment, a group largely organized by the chamber to oppose the amendment. Another board member helped to organize a protest against those who oppose fracking.
City Law Director Anthony Farris, who opposes the amendment, said after the canceled hearing that he believes the elections board would not have voted to remove the ballot issue.
Also up in the air is if the amendment passes, is it enforceable?
The Ohio Department of Natural Resources has said a number of times that the state has complete oversight when it comes to fracking, and nothing done by a community can change that.
“It’s not enforceable, but it’s a litigation nightmare,” Paglia said. “If it’s passed, there are segments in it that say the entire law can’t be struck down. Even though it’s unenforceable, it makes companies skittish. But we feel confident it will be defeated again.”
The proposal also gives any city resident “the authority to enforce this law through an action in equity” in court, according to the charter-amendment language.
Fracking is a “game-changer” in the Mahoning Valley, Paglia said. “You have laws to monitor the risks. You put violators in jail and you reap the benefits on economic growth” from the overwhelming majority of businesses that follow the rules.
The state took away local control over fracking, Anderson said, and this charter amendment will help regain it.
“People say that it’s unenforceable,” she said. “We’re taking back our zoning rights. The oil industry won’t challenge it because we have rights to clean air and water. I’m sure it will pass this time.”
If it doesn’t pass, she said, the committee will get it back on the ballot until it’s approved.
But Beiersdorfer said the question of enforceability “needs to be heard in the courts. There needs to be some judicial review.”