By Ron Osburn rosburn@bryantimes.com | 3-20-2019

As a founding member of the Williams County Alliance, Sherry Fleming hears the opposition voiced by an overwhelming number of residents in a three-state area against Artesian of Pioneer’s proposed Michindoh Aquifer plan.

AOP founder and president Ed Kidston has said he hopes to drill into the Michindoh, set up a new, dedicated water system and pipe up to 14 million gallons of water a day to up to nine entities outside the aquifer area.

He currently is awaiting a decision by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency regarding a test production water well near Fayette — potentially the first of multiple wells that would feed the new water system.

The plan to date meets all legalities, but since hearing about it last summer, residents in the three-state area (Michigan/Indiana/Ohio) bounded by the Michindoh — including virtually all of Williams County — have expressed worry that a large withdrawal will drain their wells, or lead to contamination.

According to estimates, at least 75 million gallons a day are being withdrawn from the aquifer by multiple agriculture users and 380,000 residents in the nine counties within the Michindoh Aquifer.

“People feel frustrated because they feel so powerless. They see that this (AOP) plan is so harmful, but they’ve found that within the existing law, there is no way to stop it. This is a way to stop it,” Fleming said Monday, announcing that the Alliance is launching a petition drive to qualify a Williams County charter initiative on the November ballot.

The charter initiative, if passed, could give county residents a legal way to stop AOP’s plan, said Fleming.

“People feel like they should have a say in what’s happening with their water,” Fleming said.

The group needs to collect a minimum of 1,363 signatures of registered Williams County voters, regardless of party affiliation, by July 3. Fleming said the effort kicks off beginning this weekend at the Maple Syrup Festival on Saturday morning at the Williams County Fairgrounds.

HOME RULE

Fleming said soon after The Bryan Times first detailed AOP’s plans in a June 18, 2018, story, Alliance members met with the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) and began discussing a county charter initiative.

“CELDF assists communities with actions that the communities feel are so harmful they want to stop it, but find that within the existing law, there is no way to stop it. So in our case, we began talking about a county charter initiative,” Fleming said.

The Alliance paid $1 to sign a letter of engagement with CELDF, Fleming said.

She said under the Ohio Constitution, counties can set up a charter government, giving them “home rule” authority. This allows counties to create their own government and adopt legislation more in line with the needs and wishes of the community.

Currently 86 of 88 Ohio counties are statutorily governed. Two, Summit and Cuyahoga counties, are governed by a home rule charter, said Tish O’Dell, a Broadview Heights, Ohio, based organizer for CELDF, a non-profit, public interest law firm based in Pennsylvania.

O’Dell said proposing a county charter is one way CELDF offers its assistance. “When outside groups try to do evil, it empowers people within communities to say, ‘We should have a say in how our government operates,’” O’Dell said.

The Alliance is taking its cue from Summit and Cuyahoga counties in creating a charter, but with important distinctions, said Fleming.

She said the Alliance’s newly-drafted 16-page county charter keeps virtually all of the current governmental structure intact. But it is tailored to protect the needs of Williams County by incorporating a referendum process that could put the Michindoh issue and other issues affecting county residents to a countywide vote.

“I would say ours is very different in that ours is designed to do two things: empower the people in Williams County and protect the Michindoh Aquifer,” Fleming said.
Specific charter language bans the commercial sale of Michindoh Aquifer water to entities outside the boundaries of the aquifer, Fleming said.

INFORMATION

Fleming said the Alliance is currently planning five community informational meetings in different locations around the county for residents to learn more about their efforts and about the county charter initiative.

Four of the meeting dates and locations are confirmed, while the Alliance is in the process of confirming the location of one on April 16 in Montpelier. They are:

CONFIRMED

• Tuesday, April 2, at 6:30 p.m., at the Bryan Eagles Aerie No. 2233, 221 S. Walnut St., Bryan.
• Thursday, April 11, at 6:30 p.m., at the Edon Community Center.
• Tuesday, April 23, at 6:30 p.m., at the Kissel Building, 509 N. Liberty St., West Unity.
• Tuesday, April 30, at 6:30 p.m. at the Northwest Township building, 15180 U.S. 49, Edon.

TENTATIVE:

• Thursday, April 16, at 6:30 p.m., in Montpelier, with the exact location to be confirmed

In addition, she said an informational website will be operational by April 1, at: www.protect-our-water.com.

“We want people to understand this, because it is a different kind of strategy. We’re trying to be as open and transparent as possible. If you sign (the petition) to put it on the ballot, you still have until July 3 to research it and understand it and be comfortable enough to vote for it,” Fleming said, adding the Alliance plans to have copies of the 16-page petition at local library branches soon.

STYMIED

O’Dell and Fleming said the Williams County charter initiative is similar to other initiatives and charter home rule efforts attempted over the past several years in other counties and municipalities around the state — including, among others, Meigs, Athens and Portage counties, and the city of Medina.

To date, O’Dell acknowledged that all of the efforts — many geared as a way to stop fracking in the county — have been stymied by local common pleas and state appellate courts, the Ohio Secretary of State’s office and/or the Ohio Legislature.

O’Dell did reference the success of the effort to place the Lake Erie Bill of Rights petition on the city of Toledo ballot in February as a hopeful sign. That measure passed easily.

While opposition to attempted charter initiatives has been consistent, O’Dell did note a recent court case in which 13 residents of seven Ohio counties, including Athens and Meigs, filed suit Feb. 1 in U.S. District Court against their respective boards of elections and the Ohio Secretary of State.

According to The Athens Messenger, “the suit alleges that these government officials violated citizens’ rights by blocking their attempts to place anti-fracking ‘community bill of rights’ initiatives on ballots in their counties.”

Plaintiffs include two from Athens County, one from Meigs County and two each from the city of Youngstown and Medina, Portage, Lucas and Franklin counties.

“In the case of Athens County, the suit alleges that the Athens County Board of Elections and then-Ohio Secretary of State John Husted violated citizens’ rights by declining to certify petitions to put an issue on Athens County’s ballot to make the county a charter form of government in 2015, and again in 2016 and 2017,” the Messenger story said.

O’Dell said the necessity to file a federal lawsuit is an example of the opposition Ohio communities have been facing in trying to put charter initiatives on the ballot.

“We can’t even get (a petition) on the ballot,” O’Dell said. “We’re following the laws. But people with power are not looking to give it up. We have to change that, and that’s what we’re working on here,” she said.