By Zack Lemon THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH • Thursday July 2, 2015
A group of environmentalists wants to change the Columbus City Charter to ban fracking or any other oil and gas drilling in the city.But if the city’s petition process doesn’t stop them, recent court rulings likely will.
Carolyn Harding and other organizers seeking what they call the “Columbus Community Bill of Rights” turned in their petition for a charter change on Thursday with 13,587 signatures. If 8,956 of them are from registered Columbus voters, and the group followed the city’s petition rules correctly, the measure would be on the November ballot.
“This is what democracy looks like!” Harding and the other activists shouted as they turned in the petition.
However, the Ohio Supreme Court has ruled in similar cases that cities do not have the right to regulate oil and gas drilling because a state agency, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, already regulates it.
“There’s a good chance court will side with the industry,” Harding said, comparing her fight to the push for same-sex marriage. “We’re not naive.”
Though she helped organized the petition drive, Harding lives in Bexley and cannot vote on the measure or sign the petition.
Community Bills Of Rights have passed in several other cities in Ohio, including Broadview Heights, where on Thursday a Cuyahoga County judge, citing the state’s “sole exclusive authority” to regulate drilling and the Ohio Supreme Court ruling, dismissed a class-action lawsuit that sought to keep fracking out of that city.
The Columbus Bill of Rights organizers received guidance and support from the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, who continue to push for community rights across the country, despite the recent setbacks in Ohio.
“I don’t think we’re going away,” Ohio Community Organizer Tish O’Dell said.
The proposal submitted on Thursday outlaws drilling, and it also seeks to enshrine rights to clean water, soil and air, among other things. It also says that corporations that violate the law would not be able to defend themselves as “persons” or use state and federal laws in their defense.
“Basically, it spells out our unalienable rights to pure water, safe soil, clean air, self-governance in our own community, a sustainable energy future and unimpeded usage of our private property,” said Greg Pace, one of the lead organizers. “All of these are spelled out as our rights in this country and our community and based on these rights we are banning the fracking infrastructure.”
This is the first petition to be submitted at City Hall since voters approved changes to the process in the city charter last year. The charter now spells out in detail how petitions must be filed, checked and approved. Any missteps by the petitioners could result in the petition being thrown out.
“It’ll be interesting to see how technical, how harsh, they will be,” Harding said. She started the petition in June of 2013, before the amendment process was changed in November, so she believes she is operating under the old rules.
Joshua Cox, chief counsel in the City Attorney’s office, said the group must follow the new rules.
“If there are defects in the form, yes,” the petition could be thrown out, Cox said.
Harding and her organizers are planning a similar proposal for Franklin County. The self-funded group will continue campaigning, this time for votes rather than signatures.
“This is my 100 percent, my job, but nobody pays me,” she said, “but honestly I’m glad. I love being grassroots because there’s nobody, no money, to tell us what we can and cannot say.”