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Ohio Supreme Court Keeps Anti-Drilling Petitions Off Ballot

The Ohio Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that Secretary of State Jon Husted and the election boards from three counties did not violate the law when they rejected proposed county charters that, if successful, could have led to local bans on oil and natural gas development.

In a slip opinion, the state's high court ruled 6-1 that supporters of the proposed charters were not entitled to a writ of mandamus that would have placed the charters on the ballot in November. The case is State ex rel. Coover v. Husted [No. 2016-Ohio-5794].

According to court records, election boards in Athens, Meigs and Portage counties rejected the proposed charters for a variety of reasons last year. Husted subsequently invalidated similar petitions in Athens, Fulton and Medina counties (see Shale Daily, Aug. 14, 2015).

"There is no indication that the boards of elections or the secretary of state attempted to thwart the principles of local self-government," Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor wrote for the majority. "They did not deny relators the right to establish a charter form of county government; instead, they merely examined the charter initiatives to determine whether they met the threshold requirements for inclusion on the ballot."

Justices Judith French, Judith Ann Lanzinger, Terrence O'Donnell and Paul Pfeifer concurred with O'Connor. Justice Sharon Kennedy concurred in judgment only.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice William O'Neil said the majority "would prefer that relators reinvent the wheel of government in one document. I disagree...

"The secretary of state does not have the power to veto charter petitions on behalf of the oil and gas industry simply because the citizens did not pick exclusively from the two forms of county government delineated in [the state's Revised Code]. This is a usurpation of power from the people that we should not indulge."

More than 9,000 people signed petitions in Athens, Fulton and Medina counties to establish a county charter that would have banned underground injection wells, oil and natural gas exploration and production, or both. The Ohio Supreme Court previously upheld Husted's decision to invalidate the petitions in a ruling last year (see Shale Daily, Sept. 17, 2015). But the ruling did not resolve the issue of whether grassroots referendums could be used to ban oil and gas development, including hydraulic fracturing (fracking).

"The people's right to alter or reform their government is meaningless when the same government that the people want to alter, acts as gatekeeper, restricting access to direct democracy as they so choose," said community organizer Tish O'Dell Tuesday. She is with the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund. "Communities across Ohio are facing fracking, wastewater injection wells, [liquefied natural gas] LNG pipelines, and compressor stations. They are finding no remedy in their state government, and are turning to their constitutional right of initiative to protect their communities from fracking related harms.

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