BRYAN, Ohio — A Williams County, Ohio citizens’ charter initiative to establish home role is running up against road blocks and deadlines.
Monday, the Williams County Board of Elections deemed the charter — signed by 2,534 Ohio residents — unconstitutional.
Tish O’Dell, who heads Ohio’s branch of the nonprofit Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, said the board’s action was illegal. The CELDF assisted the Williams County Alliance in creating the charter, which would shift Williams County governance from the state to the county with a goal of better protecting the Michindoh Aquifer.
A private company, Artesian of Pioneer, has applied with the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency to tap into the aquifer to serve communities in the Toledo area, potentially taking 15 million gallons a day.
The aquifer spans 10 counties in Indiana, Ohio and Michigan. Meetings have been held over the past year by county commissioner representatives pertaining to constituent concerns about the Michindoh Aquifer. The 10 boards of commissioners are in the process of creating the Ohio-Michigan-Indiana Regional Council of Governments.
A public meeting was conducted by the Ohio EPA in March, which was heavily attended by people who obviously opposed Kidston’s plans. Ohio EPA Director Laurie Stevenson must decide whether or not to grant Artesian’s request to site a test well in Fulton County, Ohio as an initial step to starting a new water utility. As of Friday afternoon, the EPA had not filed the decision on the well siting.
The charter proposal was delivered to the Williams County Board of Elections earlier this month. The elections office counted 2,077 valid signatures; 1,364 are required.
“They were just supposed to count the signatures,” said O’Dell.
On behalf of the petitioners, Williams County Alliance’s attorney Terry Lodge, Toledo, Ohio, wrote a letter to Williams County officials demanding the board of elections defend their decision in court. That court decision, says the letter, must be rendered in time for Williams County Commissioners to rule on the charter petition by Wednesday at 4 p.m.
“We believe that the Board of Elections’ refusal to follow the statutory requirements to forward the proposal to the county commissioners was unlawful, and its reasoning that the petition is constitutionally invalid were unlawful determinations, rendered unlawfully, are constitutionally unsupported, and are arbitrary and capricious,” said the letter, sent by Lodge to the board of elections and Williams County Prosecutor Katie Zartman.
A hearing has been set for Tuesday at 10 a.m. in the Williams County Court of Common Pleas. Zartman and outside counsel will represent the board of elections. Zartman said the hearing has been set for a full day on the court calendar. She said she is unsure of how court action will proceed Tuesday, as it is a new process for the county entities involved.
O’Dell said the CEDLF has run into similar issues in the past. She said there has been significant state government opposition to communities and counties that attempt to establish home rule in the state of Ohio. A budget bill recently passed by the Ohio legislature contained anti-nature’s rights language.
“We have to take it one step at a time,” O’Dell said. “This is a very important issue ... They don’t even want the people to have a vote ... They want to squash it so fast.”
She said groups like the Williams County Alliance are rocking the boat, challenging a status quo in which those in charge defend “returns on investments more than they do people or nature.”
Efforts to provide nature with its own rights, such as the Lake Erie Bill of Rights passed earlier this year by Toledo voters, are growing in popularity worldwide. It is a response, in part, to state governments’ apparent lack of action to protect natural resources from capitalistic squander.
At a recent meeting, Steuben County Commissioners reviewed a draft of the articles of agreement for the Ohio-Michigan-Indiana Regional Council of Governments. Partnering counties listed on the draft are Williams, Henry, Fulton and Defiance counties in Ohio; Lenawee, Hillsdale and Branch counties in Michigan; and Steuben, DeKalb and Allen counties in Indiana.
A meeting is set July 30 in Bryan, Ohio to bring the 10 counties together. Steuben County Commissioner Ron Smith said he and Commissioner Lynne Liechty will be attending the meeting.
“I will be signing for Steuben County,” Smith said. “We’ve approved it.”
The document has gone through revisions and has been reviewed by all the counties’ commissioners, he said.
The counties involved are those that draw water from the Michindoh Aquifer. In some areas, such as Williams County, the aquifer is the sole source of drinking water.
By uniting the 10 counties under common governance in an interstate agreement, the regional council may be able to act to protect finite water resources.