State law may keep anti-fracking proposal off Youngstown's Nov. ballot


By David Skolnick


An anti-fracking charter amendment could be kept off the city’s Nov. 7 ballot by the Mahoning County Board of Elections because of a conflict with state law.

Gov. John Kasich signed a bill in January – effective April 6 – that included an amendment giving more discretion to county boards of elections to invalidate local charter proposals that conflict with state law and/or the state constitution.

The anti-fracking proposal, rejected six previous times by city voters, would require the city to ban hydraulic fracturing and any activity related to it including “the depositing, storage, treatment, injection, disposal, transport or processing of wastewater.”

However, state law gives jurisdiction over fracking to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

When the Ohio Senate approved the measure in December, state Sen. Kevin Bacon of Minerva Park, R-3rd, specifically mentioned the Youngstown anti-fracking proposal as a main reason to include the amendment in a bill that was designed to revise foreclosure laws, according to media reports.

Mark Munroe, Mahoning elections chairman, said the board may be compelled to take action against the anti-fracking proposal.

“We have an obligation to review all of the petitions for sufficiency and validity, and the new legislation gives us additional obligations to review initiative petitions,” he said. “Clearly the legislation has imposed an additional requirement on the board of elections to review the language of this issue and make a determination if it’s within the authority of a municipality.”

Youngstown Mayor John A. McNally said Law Director Martin Hume is reviewing the law and recent cases related to it to determine if the city will make a recommendation to the board of elections about its position on the charter proposal.

Judges in Athens and Medina counties recently upheld decisions by boards of elections to reject the proposals. The boards chose not to put the measures on the ballot, citing a conflict with the state law.

“This law cuts off any right for citizens to petition their government,” said Susie Beiersdorfer, a member of the Youngstown Community Bill of Rights Committee, which is backing the proposal. “We’ve been expecting [the board] might keep it off because of that law. That law can’t be challenged in court unless they refuse to put it on the ballot. We’ll challenge it in court if it’s not certified.”

The committee submitted petitions with about 2,100 signatures to the city clerk. To qualify for the ballot, the proposal would need at least 1,259 valid signatures.

The committee has never failed to get the proposal on the ballot during six previous times: twice in both 2013 and 2014 and once in November 2015 and 2016. Voters have rejected it all six times.

City council likely will vote at its Aug. 23 meeting to accept the anti-fracking proposal and another charter amendment seeking to change how elections are run in the city and forward both to the board of elections, McNally said.

Sept. 7 is the deadline to certify city charter amendments to the ballot, Munroe said.

The elections board is meeting next Tuesday and may talk about the anti-fracking proposal then, Munroe said.

“Until it comes before the board we can’t rule on it, but it doesn’t mean we can’t discuss it,” he said. “We know the petitions were circulated, and we know the language. I don’t see any reason why we can’t bring it up for discussion next week.”

In August 2015, the board of elections unanimously voted to keep a similar anti-fracking charter amendment off the ballot. Youngstown filed a legal objection – though city officials said at the time it was not an endorsement of the proposal – with the Ohio Supreme Court, which agreed with the city in a 7-0 decision that the board lacked the authority to not certify the charter amendment.

But McNally said the law signed by Kasich changes things.

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