POMEROY — Meigs County officials are still trying to learn more about the Ohio Supreme Court decision Tuesday that directs Meigs County to place the Home Rule issue on the November ballot.
In a 4-3 opinion, the Supreme Court said the Meigs County Board of Commissioners wrongfully delayed adopting a measure in July 2015 that would have placed a charter initiative by the Meigs County Home Rule Committee on the November 2015 ballot.
The proposed charter, according to the committee, would recognize the right of county residents to initiate a referendum, which also includes a ban on fracking infrastructure projects to dispose of fracking waste in Meigs County, as well as using water sources in Meigs to aid in the process.
The opinion does not guarantee the issue will be on the ballot, though.
Tish O’Dell, Ohio organizer for the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, said the Supreme Court’s ruling is one they’ve been seeking all along and the reason why they appealed a lower courts decision that upheld keeping the initiative off the 2015 ballot.
“The Supreme Court decision makes it clear that government officials cannot simply pocket-veto a petition by failing to act on it before the applicable pre-election deadline passes, with the intent and result of keeping people’s initiatives off the ballot,” she said. “The court pretty clearly states that such delays will not prevent mandamus if the delay was not the fault of the petitioners. This is a victory for the people and the right to initiative by the people.”
The issue became entangled when the commissioners tabled a vote on the initiative, citing several deficiencies in the charter petition. For the petition to be approved, the board of elections was to provide the commissioners a certification of both the signatures and validity of the petition itself, along with a report. This information was to be delivered to the commissioners no later than 120 days before the general election, which would have been July 6, 2016.
The commissioners received a letter from former Meigs County Board of Elections Director Becky Johnston and for Deputy Director (now director) Meghan Lee on July 2, 2015, advising them the petition had been filed with the board of elections on June 24, and that at least 567 signatures (the minimum required amount) on the petition were valid.
On July 9 — three days after the 120-day deadline — the commissioners sent a letter to the elections board stating it received and discussed the letter at the July 9 meeting and had identified three deficiencies: the letter did not certify whether the petition had sufficient valid signature, nothing concerning the validity of the petition itself was included; and there was no sign from the elections board showing its certification.
The commissioners tabled a vote on the certification until July 14. The day before the vote, the elections board sent another letter to the commissioners stating it verified the signatures and voted “as to form on the face of the petition” and found it was valid.
The issue then went before the Fourth District Court of Appeals, which ruled in favor of the Meigs County Home Rule Committee, stating the Meigs County Board of Elections “did not certify the petition and the signatures within the 120-day time period as required.”
Tuesday’s Supreme Court opinion reversed that lower-court decision.
“This is a pretty unique case,” said Meigs County Commissioner Randy Smith, who spent the better part of Wednesday morning trying to find out more information on the ruling. “I’ve never seen anything like this before.”
Smith, along with fellow commissioners Mike Bartrum and Tim Ihle, were not aware of the decision Tuesday until The Daily Sentinel made contact with them and posted a brief story on its website and Facebook page.
“We’ve looked at what we can and we’re waiting for something official — a signed or file-stamped copy of the entry from the court,” Smith said. “As quick as we can get that, then we will take action as directed by the court.”
Smith said once official documents are received, the commission will be able to take action at its next available meeting.
“It will take all of about 30 seconds,” Smith said. “There really isn’t a standard resolution that fits that description. With some of the levies, there is already a preprinted resolution where the wording has to be exact. For us, technically, the resolution the (Ohio) Revised Code is asking for is a copy of our minutes.”
Lee, the Meigs elections director, respectfully declined comment Wednesday because she had not yet received the official ruling.
But as Smith noted, time is running short because ballots must be printed and the election is slated for Nov. 8 — give or take 60 days. Much depends, he said, on coordination of schedules from the involved governing bodies. The sooner the board of elections and commission receives the documentation, the soon they can act.
Along with awaiting the official documentation, Meigs County officials also must wait for Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted to weigh in on the matter, which the court gave him authority to do.
Reach Michael Johnson at 740-446-2342, ext. 2102, or on Twitter @OhioEditorMike.