Youngstown officials file complaint to get anti-fracking charter amendment on ballot
By DAVID SKOLNICK
In a filing with the Ohio Supreme Court, city officials contend the Mahoning County Board of Elections acted “illegally” by refusing to place an anti-fracking citizen-initiative on Youngstown’s Nov. 3 ballot.
The city filed the complaint Friday with the Ohio Supreme Court asking it to compel the board and the Ohio Secretary of State’s Office to place the proposal back on the ballot.
The filing caught the board of elections chairman and FrackFree Mahoning Valley, the group that supported the proposal, off-guard.
“It’s not a surprise a lawsuit was filed, but we thought the FrackFree people would initiate it,” said board Chairman Mark Munroe. “It was a surprise the city initiated the lawsuit.”
Susie Beiersdorfer, a FrackFree member, said, “I’m pretty speechless, but it’s the right thing to do with a charter amendment and home rule, so I applaud the city.”
The board of elections unanimously voted Wednesday to keep the charter-amendment proposal off the ballot with its members saying it did so largely based on a Feb. 17 decision by the Ohio Supreme Court.
That decision says the state constitution’s home-rule amendment doesn’t grant local governments the power to regulate oil and gas operations in their limits, and that Ohio law gives the state government – specifically the Department of Natural Resources – the exclusive authority to regulate oil and gas wells.
City Law Director Martin S. Hume said the filing of the complaint for a writ of mandamus was not an endorsement of the content of the proposal. Rather, the complaint seeks to vindicate the proposition that citizens should have the right to petition the government in accordance with Youngstown’s home-rule charter and the federal and state constitutions, he said.
“If there are issues of constitutionality that should be determined after the passage, if the proposal passes,” Hume said. “Let the people vote on it. The proponents have lost the opportunity to argue if it’s constitutional by the board’s decision. The board of elections and the secretary of state don’t have the constitutional power to decide.”
The court filing states the board “exceeded the powers granted to them under the Constitution and laws of the state of Ohio.” It also states that the board’s invalidation of the charter amendment petitions “is unconstitutional, arbitrary, illegal and an abuse of discretion.”
An Aug. 13 decision by Secretary of State Jon Husted to remove anti-fracking proposals from the ballot in Athens, Fulton and Medina counties placed doubts the effort in Youngstown would survive. Representatives of those three counties are asking the Supreme Court to order Husted to put those measures back on the ballot.
Munroe said the board can remove initiatives, such as this, that conflicts with state law.
“We recognize this does break new legal ground, but we feel the decision we made was sound,” he said. “The board doesn’t abuse its discretion when it refuses to certify an issue the Supreme Court has ruled is unenforceable.”
FrackFree has failed to get similar charter amendments approved by voters twice in both 2013 and 2014.
Because FrackFree turned in petitions with more than enough valid signatures to qualify for the Nov. 3 ballot, the board of elections had no authority to disqualify the charter amendment proposal, Hume said.