In a special election that drew only about 9 percent of Toledo’s registered voters to the polls, the citizen-led Lake Erie Bill of Rights referendum passed by a 61-39 margin on Tuesday night, according to unofficial election results.
Now, it’s up to lawyers to sort out what the citizenry’s impassioned plea for the lake really means in practice — that is, if it will be more of a symbolic gesture or, as its supporters claim, a new approach to planning and enforcement that will hold more polluters accountable.
The ballot measure calls for Toledo’s city charter to be amended in such a way that declares Lake Erie itself has a right to carry a smaller environmental burden.
In the other measure in Tuesday’s special election, the Keep the Jail Downtown Toledo initiative was approved by a wide margin.
Toledo represents only a fraction of the entire Lake Erie basin, but it lies along the heart of the western Lake Erie shoreline — the most ecologically fragile and most biologically dynamic part of the Great Lakes basin because of its shallowness and relative warmth. Just outside the Toledo area lies some of North America’s top fishing and birding opportunities.
The contentious fight to get Lake Erie a bill of rights has drawn a flurry of emotions from both sides of the issue. Supporters and detractors generally agree the debate over how much protection must be afforded the lake is not over.
Critics have called the effort anti-business. It is modeled after “rights to nature” laws promoted by the Pennsylvania-based Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund in at least 10 states and in Nepal, India, Cameroon, Colombia, and Australia, among other countries.
Activist and organizer Sean Nestor signs a banner during the Lake Erie Bill of Rights election watch party at Michael’s Bar & Grill in Toledo. (THE BLADE/LORI KING)
Adam Sharp, executive vice president of the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation, issued a statement late Tuesday.
“Farm Bureau members are disappointed with the results of the LEBOR vote,” he said. “Our concern remains that its passage means Ohio farmers, taxpayers and businesses now face the prospect of costly legal bills fighting over a measure that likely will be found unconstitutional and unenforceable.”
Supporters — frustrated by the seemingly endless political machinations of lobbying groups — have claimed progress has been incremental at best in reducing Lake Erie’s pollution since the metro region got a major wake-up call in August of 2014. That’s when 500,000 Metro Toledo residents were told for nearly three days to stay away from their tap water because it had been poisoned by an algal toxin that had been drawn into the city’s distribution system.
“No matter what happens, we’re feeling very proud of what we’ve done,” said Markie Miller, Toledoans for Safe Water organizer, the group behind the local campaign.
She said supporters are “so tired of the inaction we’ve seen.”
“We don’t quit,” she added, once victory was in hand. “We’ve started a new conversation not only here but all over the world.”
Both her group and another one that helped it on the campaign, Advocates for a Clean Lake Erie, were formed in response to Toledo’s high-profile 2014 water crisis, which was reported globally.
Mike Ferner, ACLE founder, was not at the watch party because he underwent emergency surgery Tuesday night for a bleeding ulcer. Numerous other supporters, though, danced and sang to ‘60s and ‘70s music while drinking beer and awaiting election results at Michael’s Bar and Grill on Monroe Street.
Hours before his medical procedure, Mr. Ferner told The Blade that efforts such as the Lake Erie Bill of Rights show “why people need to start relying on our democracy to hold polluters accountable.”
“Regulatory agencies have not been doing their jobs for a long time,” Mr. Ferner said. “We’re still going to try to get them to do what they’re supposed to do. But there’s no reason to be limited just to that if there are creative approaches out there such as the Lake Erie Bill of Rights.”
Some of the staunchest opposition came from the Toledo Regional Chamber of Commerce and an 11th hour ballot committee called the Toledo Jobs and Growth Coalition, the latter of which ran an advertising campaign on nine Toledo-area radio stations predicting economic disaster if the measure passed. Neither issued statements or would grant requests for interviews about the vote totals.
Although the chamber declined comment Tuesday night, it earlier said in a prepared statement it has opposed the charter amendment because it believes it is a “job killer” that puts future development at risk.
Some labor unions have opposed it for the same reason.
One of the accusations from the coalition — which didn’t identify any members other than treasurer Brandon Lynaugh, a partner at a Columbus-based public relations-lobbying firm — was that a Lake Erie Bill of Rights would devastate Toledo-area churches.
Lake Erie clean water activists huddle after their Lake Erie Bill of Rights passed during an election watch party at Michael’s Bar & Grill in Toledo. (THE BLADE/LORI KING)
It did not explain how.
A group of Catholic priests, though, supported passage.
The Toledo Social Justice Subcommittee of the Association of U.S. Catholic Priests said days before the election it liked the initiative because it ensures the “right to a healthy environment for the residents of Toledo” and the “irrevocable rights for the Lake Erie ecosystem to exist, flourish and naturally evolve.”
“Everything created is a gift of God; everything reflects God the Creator and leads us back to God. Everything, therefore, is sacred. If we live that belief, we see the natural world as a blessing to be cultivated and protected, not as a resource to be exploited,” the group’s statement said.
The two main environmental groups behind the campaign have long assailed big agriculture, especially livestock facilities large enough to be classified as concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs.
Dorothy Pelanda, Gov. Mike DeWine’s recent choice to serve as the new Ohio Department of Agriculture director, said at a news conference in Columbus on Tuesday that she looks forward to working with farmers in reducing nutrient runoff from fields through a new set of initiatives.
“I’m a firm believer that the best solutions come from productive discussions and negotiations, not the court,” Ms. Pelanda, a former Republican state representative from Marysville, said. “I just worry that something like this could throw a legal wrench into the positive efforts that are already underway or about to come as we roll out these initiatives.”