Petitioners in Williams County recently put in a request to force the Board of Elections to place a charter proposal on the Nov. 5 ballot that they say would protect the waters of the Michindoh Aquifer. After being denied numerous times, the request recently headed to the Ohio Supreme Court. Ty Higgins, Ohio Farm Bureau director of media relations, visits with Ohio Farm Bureau’s Amy Milam about the latest developments in this case.
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Ty Higgins: Since Leah Curtis is enjoying time with her new son, for this Legal with Leah, we are visiting with Amy Milam, director of legal education and member engagement here at Ohio Farm Bureau. Amy, this type of effort sounds familiar. Tell me about the aquifer and why there was a push for a ballot initiative about it.
Amy Milam: The Michindoh Aquifer is an underground aquifer system that covers nine counties (including Williams County) within three states – Michigan, Indiana and Ohio. The push for the ballot initiative came about as an attempt to block private companies from pumping water from the aquifer to sell to other communities. However, this initiative tried to do so by granting legal rights to the aquifer and the aquifer’s ecosystem and through other provisions that could have negative implications for agriculture.
Ty Higgins: How similar is what they tried to do in Williams County to the Lake Erie Bill of Rights citizens of Toledo passed earlier this year?
Amy Milam: The similarities are that both attempt to grant rights to nature to “exist, flourish, evolve, regenerate, etc.” and purport to give the right to bring lawsuits to enforce the rights of the ecosystem, the Michindoh Aquifer ecosystem in this case, and the Lake Erie ecosystem in the case of Toledo. The difference is that the Williams County initiative tried to push these rights of nature by establishing a new charter form of government for the entire county, whereas the Toledo initiative was done through an amendment to the already existing City Charter for Toledo. City charters and county charters are governed by different legal requirements. To be a valid county charter, a county charter must provide for the exercise of all powers and performance of all duties by county officials and provide for their manner of election, which the Williams County Board of Elections found this initiative failed to do.
Ty Higgins: I mentioned this made it all the way to Ohio’s Supreme Court and they shot it down, which is what Ohio Farm Bureau, Williams County Farm Bureau and the Ohio attorney general all advocated for. How did Farm Bureau get involved and when it was all said and done, what was the court’s reasoning for denying the request?
Amy Milam: Farm Bureau monitored the initiative as it proceeded forward. The proposed charter was first rejected by the Williams County Board of Elections, which determined that the charter failed to meet Ohio’s threshold constitutional requirements for county charters to be placed on the ballot. The board’s decision was then challenged in the common pleas court in Williams County, and the common pleas court agreed that the charter failed to meet the threshold requirements to be on the ballot. After that decision, the petitioners pushing the initiative bypassed the Court of Appeals and went directly to the Ohio Supreme Court. At this point, Ohio Farm Bureau and Williams County Farm Bureau filed an amicus brief with the Ohio Supreme Court supporting the Board of Elections’ decision. Ultimately, the Ohio Supreme Court found that the petitioners had an adequate remedy through their common pleas court action, which they could have appealed to the Court of Appeals, but chose not to. And because they tried to bypass the court of appeals, they were not entitled to relief from the Supreme Court. So the proposed charter will not be on the ballot before the voters in Williams County this November.
Ty Higgins: We knew after LEBOR passed that other similar charter amendments would be attempted. Are there any other attempts around Ohio that we know of or has the unconstitutionality of giving nature rights tamped down those types of efforts.
Amy Milam: It’s too early to say. We know that the group pushing the Williams County charter has stated they may try again for a future election. We are also monitoring for the outcome of the LEBOR litigation in federal court.
Ty Higgins: Amy Milam does a great job of staying on top of all legal matters that pertain or have an impact on our members. She is the director of legal education and member engagement with Ohio Farm Bureau. I’m Ty Higgins and this is Legal with Leah. We’ll see you down the road.