By DAVID SKOLNICK
Only four minutes before the start of a Mahoning County Board of Elections’ hearing to consider the validity of a citizen-initiated charter amendment to ban fracking in Youngstown, those who filed the challenge withdrew it.
“It is a good day for democracy,” said Susie Beiersdorfer, a member of the Youngstown Community Bill of Rights Committee, which backs the charter amendment. “We the people certainly won.”
Concerns regarding conflicts of interest among board members played a factor in the withdrawal, according to a Friday statement from the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber.
The chamber hired Lavelle and Associates, an Athens law firm, to challenge the legality of the anti-fracking proposal.
“We strongly believe the board of elections has the ability and duty to prevent a misleading, poorly constructed and unenforceable charter amendment from going before the voters,” said Tony Paglia, the chamber’s vice president of government and media affairs. “However, moving forward with a protest would needlessly cloud this issue with concerns over board of elections conflicts of interests and board member recusals.”
A week ago, however, Paglia defended the objectivity of the board of elections members.
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, a group organized largely by the chamber to oppose the charter amendment.
Betras and Winbush 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.
Winbush and Munroe said they could be objective.
But Betras said because he is “so vocal on this issue,” if the hearing occurred, “I wouldn’t have participated.”
The board voted 3-0, with Betras abstaining, to put the anti-fracking amendment on the Nov. 5 ballot.
About 50 supporters of the charter amendment packed the board of elections’ meeting room with several people standing. They cheered when Munroe said the objection had been withdrawn.
The chamber-backed 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.
The Youngstown Community Bill of Rights Committee needed at least 1,562 valid signatures on petitions to get the issue back on the ballot.
The board of elections found 1,621 valid signatures among the 2,450 the group submitted.
A similar proposal was defeated in May, 56.85 percent to 43.15 percent.
Sean Kelly, a Cleveland lawyer who represents the bill of rights committee, said, “The board of elections doesn’t have the authority to determine the validity of charter amendments. That’s governed by the Ohio Constitution. Boards of elections don’t have the authority to determine unsettled points of law such as municipalities having the right to exert any control locally over oil and gas. That’s a matter for the [state] Supreme Court.”
As for the withdrawal, Kelly said, “This victory belongs to the people of Youngstown who worked so hard to collect signatures and bring this to the ballot.”
Betras said he “appreciates the frustration” of the amendment’s supporters, “but their fight is with the state Legislature.”
A state law gives exclusive control over oil and gas drilling to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.
The chamber hired the Lavelle firm because it successfully persuaded the Athens County Board of Elections last month to remove an anti-fracking proposal with language similar to the Youngstown initiative from the city of Athens' Nov. 5 ballot.
Mike Chadsey, a spokesman for the pro-fracking Ohio Oil and Gas Association, who was at the board meeting, said, “Let’s not resolve this at a Friday night meeting” of the board of elections. “Let’s resolve this on the ballot. Voters already defeated it” in May.