By RON OSBURN | July 16, 2019
Did the Williams County Board of Elections act within its authority in rejecting a county charter petition at its July 8 meeting. Or did the board overstep its authority?
The answer is expected sometime today and the decision could determine whether or not the county charter goes onto the November ballot.
After a 90-minute hearing in Williams County Common Pleas Court Tuesday, Judge J.T. Stelzer said he will make a decision before 4 p.m. today, as required by the Ohio Revised Code.
The Williams County Alliance has proposed a county charter as a way to oppose efforts by a Pioneer company to extract and sell water from the local aquifer to entities outside the county.
Though the Alliance collected more than enough signatures of registered voters to qualify for a vote on the November general election ballot, the elections board July 8 rejected the charter petition. Elections Director A.J. Nowaczyk ruled that based on his conversations with the board’s legal counsel — County Prosecutor Katie Zartman — and in his own opinion, language in the proposed charter issue exceeds the scope of the powers afforded to local governments by the state.
Derek S. Clinger, attorney with Columbus-based firm McTigue & Colombo LLC, which was brought in to assist Zartman, argued that according to previous case law, the petition failed on three main points, including that it exceeded the scope of the county’s authority as provided for by the state legislature.
Clinger also said the charter should be rejected because it fails to enumerate all the powers and duties of all county officials, and it fails to sufficiently set forth the county’s form of government.
Alliance attorney Terry Lodge argued the election board exceeded its powers in making its ruling and instead should have ruled only on whether there were enough signatures to qualify for the November ballot.
Lodge referenced previous case law in maintaining the election board “may not (rule) on the substance of the petition.”
Clinger on Tuesday also introduced eight affidavits from county elected officials submitted into the record prior to Tuesday morning’s hearing, with each giving reasons why the charter as proposed is “unclear, inconsistent and unworkable,” Clinger said.
For instance, he said county Recorder Patti Rockey pointed out the proposed charter failed to detail the many types of documents the county recorder is required by law to report, such as public notices, powers of attorney and plat dispositions.
Lodge called those arguments a “red herring,” saying the charter should be authorized by the elections board and placed on the ballot prior to being subject to a legal challenge.
“We believe the people want to maintain county offices within the parameters of the Ohio Revised Code, and pass the charter along with that, with provisions (to protect the aquifer),” Lodge said.
Stelzer’s decision also could have statewide ramifications.
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, all of the efforts — many geared as a way to stop fracking in their county — have been stymied by local common pleas and state appellate courts, the Ohio Secretary of State’s office and/or the Ohio Legislature.
Zartman said she requested outside counsel because of the legal complexities and unsettled nature of petition law. And at one point Tuesday, as Stelzer sought clarification on Lodge’s references to past case law, he noted “there is a lot of (legal) confusion out there” on charter petition law.
Just two of Ohio’s 88 counties — Summit and Cuyahoga — are governed by “home rule” charters. The other 86 are statutorily governed.
If Stelzer rules against the election board, the charter petition would go to the Williams County Commissioners, who would need to pass a resolution before 4 p.m. today to put it to a public vote on the Nov. 6 general election ballot. In that event, Lodge said he filed a formal request that the commissioners be ready to meet prior to 4 p.m. today.
If Stelzer rules to uphold the election board’s decision rejecting the petition, the Alliance will appeal, Alliance organizer Sherry Fleming said.