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Getting on the Ballot May be Easiest Part for Columbus Community Bill of Rights

Lauren Sega Lauren Sega Getting on the Ballot May be Easiest Part for Columbus Community Bill of RightsPhoto via Columbus Community Bill of Rights.
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After two previous attempts, the anti-fracking Columbus Community Bill of Rights (CBR) is one step closer to appearing on the November ballot. Columbus City Council is set to approve the ordinance for the ballot at their meeting on Monday, July 30, before it’s off to be verified and assigned an issue number by the Franklin County Board of Elections.

What it’ll mean practically, however, is still undecided. The Columbus CBR, modeled after a similar initiative in Pittsburgh organized by the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), is part of a state- and nationwide effort to transfer jurisdiction over oil and gas activities from states to individual municipalities. But, the Ohio General Assembly already voted in 2004 to assign the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) with jurisdiction over the state’s oil and gas practices — eight years before the first city in Ohio, Broadview Heights, passed a bill of rights charter amendment.

That decision by the General Assembly has caused trouble for Ohio towns attempting to actually enforce their ordinances, resulting in a series of lawsuits, and culminating in an Ohio Supreme Court decision in 2015 that effectively reasserted the state’s preemptive control over oil and gas activities.

Tish O’Dell is one of the pioneers of Ohio’s CBR movement. She and a group of fellow Broadview Heights residents formed Mothers Against Drilling in Our Neighborhoods (MADION) to build community support around the initiative.

After Broadview Heights’ CBR was approved by voters, other cities followed suit, and the next several years saw a string of lawsuits — against drilling companies for violating charter amendments and against the municipalities for interfering with drilling efforts approved by ODNR.

In 2013, Munroe Falls sued Ravenna-based company Beck Energy, a case that garnered the interest of residents in Broadview Heights and North Royalton, who filed friend-of-the-court briefs in support of Munroe Falls. After plaintiff and defendant duked it out in the lower courts, the case reached the Ohio Supreme Court.

In 2015, citing Ohio Revised Code 1509, the Ohio Supreme Court decided that ‘sole and exclusive authority’ to regulate oil and gas wells and production operations in Ohio belongs to the state.

What does this mean, then, for Columbus’ own version? Local organizers with Columbus’ CBR say, regardless of court precedent, the city needs its own ordinance to challenge what they see as an unjust law prohibiting citizens from protecting their water, air, and soil.

Carolyn Harding and Bill Lyons, organizers with the Columbus CBR, both say that in order to change the law it’s necessary to enact these individual municipal ordinances. O’Dell added that a the court decision doesn’t mean their efforts were a total loss: “Forty-some communities followed us,” she says. “It sparked a movement.”

That movement may translate into a pair of state amendments, if the Ohio Community Rights Network can gain the support. The Community Rights Amendment would establish the “inherent and inalienable right of local community self-government in each county, city, township, and village,” allowing people and local governments to enact and enforce local laws that “protect health, safety, and welfare” and “securing those rights using prohibitions and other means deemed necessary by the community, including measures to establish, define, alter, or eliminate competing rights, powers, privileges, immunities, or duties of corporations and other business entities operating, or seeking to operate, in the community.”

A second “Initiative and Referendum” amendment would reserve the powers of initiative and referendum “to the people of each county and township.”

For more information, visit ohcommunityrights.org.

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