What Happened to the County Charters? What happened to Our Rights?
Portage Community Rights Group worked hard with lawyers (for about two and a half months this year) to craft a county charter that described the structure of local government we wanted (primarily the same structure we presently have), while legalizing local authority to protect our health, safety, welfare and environment.
The committee of 8 was joined by around 6 others and we began collecting signatures on Primary Day. Gradually, people joined us until, in mid summer, we had 37 circulators. Some circulators were able to collect only a few signatures, while others collected hundreds of signatures and spent hundreds of hours. On July 19th, we turned in over 5300 signatures, and the staff of the Board Of Election found that we had 20% more valid signatures than the required 4078.
We were not alone. This year, four Ohio counties (Athens, Meigs, Medina and Portage) collected over 14,000 signatures to put county charters on the ballot. Each county collected sufficient valid signatures and followed all the rules for circulating our petitions. In spite of common belief that all authority for government comes from The People, and that We, The People have the democratic right to alter or abolish a government that fails to protect us, the Boards of Election in the four counties failed to put the charters on the ballots. The Ohio Secretary of State subsequently ruled that the voters could not vote on the charters.
The four county grassroots groups' lawyers took the case to the Ohio Supreme Court (OSC) where our lawyers pointed out that a clear reading of the Ohio Revised Code (ORC) and the Constitution give the Boards of Election and the Secretary of State the authority to examine the validity of the signatures and the sufficiency of the petitions---meaning did we fallow all the rules in crafting the petitions and printing them and did we collect enough signatures. The OSC voted 6-1 to support the Secretary of State examining in minute detail the contents of the actual charter and declared it insufficient. In Justice O'Neill's dissenting opinion, he said, “The secretary of state does not have the power to veto charter petitions on behalf of the oil and gas industry simply because the citizens did not pick exclusively from the two forms of county government delineated in R.C. 302.02.3 This is a usurpation of power from the people that we should not indulge.”
We're re-grouping and consulting again with our lawyers to determine how to legislate democracy so as to ensure our right to decide how we want to live in our community to protect our rights, our health, safety, welfare, and environment. We're working with the Ohio Community Rights Network to collect signatures to put State Constitutional Amendments on the ballot to protect local communities' right to alter their government and to ensure that all Ohioans have equal rights of initiative and referendum. Although our core group is disappointed and tired of collecting signatures, we're not going away. We're looking for our supporters to come out and help. We'll be looking at options to get our local rights at the county level and then we'll be back collecting signatures. Some of us are planning a series of public meetings to discuss what we want our community to be like: Do we want to pursue county wide efforts to develop sustainable energy? Promote more local sustainable, good paying jobs? Build programs to protect our water and environment? Watch this space to find out our next steps.