By RON OSBURN rosburn@bryantimes.com

July 26, 2019

To Sherry Fleming, one thing became apparent during the informational meeting in early June by John Leutz, legislative counsel with the County Commissioners Association of Ohio, on the proposed county charter initiative.

“It’s not just an issue of water, but who has the power,” Fleming said, reflecting on the June 3 midday PowerPoint presentation and question-and-answer session that drew about 90 people to the East Annex conference room.

Leutz expressed doubt the charter would be approved for the ballot and on July 8, the Williams County Board of Elections rejected the charter petition, though it found a sufficient number of valid signatures. The board ruled that based on the county prosecutor’s opinion, language in the proposed charter issue exceeds the scope of the powers afforded to local governments by the state.

On July 17, the Williams County Common Pleas Court backed the county elections board in a ruling rejecting the charter petition, agreeing with the election board and also saying the charter failed to provide enough detail on the duties of county officials, and includes provisions which are not within the authority of a county to enact.

Fleming said the Alliance intends to take the next step in the process and file a protest to be heard by the secretary of state’s office.

Per Ohio Revised Code Section 307.95, a protest concerning the board of election’s findings on the validity or invalidity of a county charter petition or any signature may be filed to the board of elections by 4 p.m. on July 31.

The board of elections is then required to deliver one copy of the protest to the secretary of state’s office, which determines the validity or invalidity of the petition within 10 days.

The secretary of state must notify the board of elections of its ruling by 4 p.m. on Aug. 16. If determined to be valid, the charter will be placed on the ballot. If determined to be invalid — which Fleming expects — the Alliance will file an appeal with the Ohio Supreme Court, she said.

The Alliance has proposed the charter as a way to legally oppose Artesian of Pioneer’s (AOP) controversial plan to drill into the underground aquifers that span a nine-county area in Ohio, Michigan and Indiana — commonly referred to as the Michindoh Aquifer — and sell up to 14 million gallons a day of Michindoh water to entities outside of the aquifer area.

Fleming said while the Alliance’s efforts have centered on qualifying the charter, the focus has broadened.

“Now it’s as much about protecting the right of citizens to (vote on) a charter as it is about the charter itself. It’s not only about the aquifer, but about the push by the state against citizens who want more control over what happens in their communities. Right now, all power is at the state. It’s not a level playing field,” Fleming said Friday, using legislation in HB 463, passed by the state legislature in 2016, as an example of the state’s overreach in restricting charter efforts.

“Before that, for the past 100 years, the government was not interfering with the right to petition. With HB 463, now that’s changed. So we plan to bring it to the Supreme Court,” Fleming said.

Fleming also said she is skeptical about language in the state’s recently passed budget bill that includes $500,000 over the next two years to develop data about the aquifer, which is the sole source of water to Williams County.

“From what I’ve read, there is no language that prohibits AOP or Nestle or anybody from drilling and selling the water as long as they meet certain criteria. Right there, to me, is a red flag,” Fleming said, adding she is concerned with what she sees as the budget bill’s amplified protection for industrial agriculture and factory farms and lack of protection for ecosystems.

The non-profit Alliance is being assisted in its efforts by the Pennsylvania-based Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund and represented in court proceedings by Toledo-based attorney Terry Lodge.

AOP president Ed Kidston, who recently filed to run again in November as mayor of Pioneer, has said he is withholding comment to the media.