Overturning Ohio HB 463

Overturning Ohio HB 463
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President Trump says – and the Supreme Court affirms – that we are “a nation of laws,” but no one questions “who” is making those laws.  It takes a people’s movement to overturn unjust law and advance rights. And Ohioans are launching just that: a Community Rights movement to protect and enforce rights to clean air, water, and local community self-government.

It is a movement born out of necessity in this state. The oil and gas industry owns state legislators, and local government officials carry out state directives under threat of being sued and facing bankruptcy. In Pennsylvania, even the judiciary is punishing lawyers defending communities from fracking harms.

As fracking, pipelines, compressor stations, and wastewater injection wells inundate communities, it’s clear to residents they will find no remedy in the EPA, ODNR, and certainly not in their legislators.

Thus, they are turning to themselves and each other. They are building a rights-based movement to end their communities becoming sacrifice zones, and to build what they envision for their communities: clean air and water, a healthy environment, strong local economies, and a future for their children.

Community Rights Laws

For five years, Ohio residents – finding no remedy in the current system – have requested help to draft local Community Rights laws and charters to stop fracking activities. These laws establish rights to clean air and water, and the right to local community self-government.  They ban fracking activities as a violation of those rights.

Nearly a half dozen communities have adopted rights-based ordinances and Home Rule charter amendments, including Broadview Heights, Athens, Waterville, and Oberlin. Since then, Ohio communities have drafted over thirty more Community Rights laws.

The people of Ohio are building a movement. And the growing numbers of obstacles they face are only accelerating its growth.

Overturning HB 463

In 2016, the oil and gas industry had enough of Community Rights. Lobbyists whispered in state legislators’ ears, and HB 463 was quietly adopted a year ago. HB 463 was a foreclosure bill. However, taking direct aim at Community Rights initiatives, legislators added a section granting the Ohio Secretary of State and the non-elected county Boards of Elections (BOEs) authority to strip duly qualified citizens initiatives off of the ballot based on their subject matter. This one act disregarded over a hundred years of precedent.

Industry and their representatives in the legislature thought this would chill Community Rights in Ohio. They thought wrong.  Communities advanced rights-based citizen initiatives anyway. And when BOEs and industry allies tried to stop them, the people advancing Community Rights struck back, in county and appellate courts and multiple Ohio Supreme Court cases.

It was the unrelenting communities who refused to sacrifice their rights in every one of these cases that led – finally – to the partial overturning of HB 463. In October, the argument for rights that Ohioans are advancing through the Community Rights movement was finally heard by the Ohio Supreme Court. The case was State ex rel. Espen v. Wood Cty. Bd. of Elections, and the people’s initiated law went to the ballot.

This was a stunning victory. The people of Ohio succeeded in overturning an unjust law adopted by legislators. It wouldn’t have happened without the dogged determination of Athens and Medina County residents, and Youngstown and Bowling Green residents, with the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund – a public interest law firm – at their side.

But that is what movements require: grit, persistence, and time.

What’s Next

Today, Columbus residents are gathering signatures for a city ordinance protecting their water and banning radioactive drill cuttings disposal within the city. The cuttings are a byproduct of fracking.

Youngstown residents are gathering signatures for a city charter amendment protecting their water and banning fracking.

Toledo residents are gathering signatures for a city charter amendment to protect the rights of Lake Erie to exist and flourish.

Counties are exploring their next steps to advance Community Rights charters and protect themselves from fracking activities.

And across the state, Ohioans have come together to propose two state constitutional amendments codifying and protecting rights.

Yes, we are a nation of laws – laws made by we, the people.Ohioans are not giving up their right to initiative. Instead, they are building a movement. We are proud to stand with them.

Thomas Linzey is an attorney and the Executive Director of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), which has assisted the people of over two hundred municipalities in the United States to advance rights for those communities over the claimed “rights” of energy, agribusiness, and other corporations.

Tish O’Dell is the Ohio Organizer for the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) and is available to answer questions and make presentations to any community in Ohio curious about implementing community rights. tish@celdf.org