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Elections board sued in Ohio Supreme Court over Lake Erie Bill of Rights, downtown jail ballot initiatives

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    Cindy Matthews, right, stands in protest after members of the Lucas County Board of Elections voted to exclude two initiatives from the November ballot during a special meeting Tuesday, August 28, 2018, at the Early Voting Center in Toledo. During the meeting board members voted to exclude the two initiatives from the November ballot: one to keep the Lucas County jail downtown and the other seeking to establish a Lake Erie bill of rights. About two dozen people turned out in support of the initiatives, for which local groups had collected signatures and petitioned.

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    Shamrock-green waves lap against the Lake Erie shoreline in downtown Port Clinton.

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    David Hartman, center, holds his sign during a special meeting of the Lucas County Board of Elections Tuesday at the Early Voting Center in Toledo.

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    A supporter of the inclusion of two initiatives on the November ballot holds a sign during a special meeting of the Lucas County Board of Elections Tuesday, at the Early Voting Center in Toledo.

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    Algae-tinged waters of Lake Erie at Maumee Bay State Park in Oreong, Thursday, August 23, 2018.

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Two activist groups have filed separate lawsuits challenging the controversial decisions made by the Lucas County Board of Elections this past Tuesday to prevent their citizen-led initiatives from being placed on the Nov. 6 ballot.

On Thursday, Toledoans for Safe Water filed a lawsuit with the Ohio Supreme Court against the elections board for denying the group’s request to have its proposed Lake Erie Bill of Rights on the ballot. 

Then, on Friday afternoon, a similar event unfolded when the other activist group, Keep the Jail in Downtown Toledo, filed a lawsuit with the state’s highest court against the elections board for denying that group’s request to have voters decide the fate of its proposal to keep the Lucas County Jail within downtown.

Both groups had more than enough signatures certified as valid. In both cases, the elections board ruled the two proposals went beyond the scope of what Toledo city law could enforce.

RELATED: BOE rejects ballot measures | Water group collects signatures for Lake Erie bill of rights

John Michael Durback, a Toledoans for Safe Water spokesman, said in a statement Friday he believes elections board members “exceeded their authority in stripping away the rights of Toledo voters.”

Board of Elections Director LaVera Scott was not available for comment. Deputy Director Theresa Gabriel referred questions to the Lucas County Prosecutor’s Office, which did not return a call placed to it. But in her response to the Lake Erie lawsuit, Prosecuting Attorney Julia Bates told the Ohio Supreme Court she believes the elections board acted within state law.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor said in an order late Friday the elections board must file its answer to the jail lawsuit by Tuesday.

“No requests or stipulations for extension of time shall be accepted in this case and the clerk’s office shall refuse to accept for filing any request or stipulation for extension of time,” the chief justice wrote.

The elections board validated 6,438 of some 10,000 signatures Toledoans for Safe Water submitted before the deadline. The number validated exceeded what was required to get the measure on the ballot by 1,200 signatures.

Similarly, it validated 7,764 of the 10,583 signatures Keep the Jail in Downtown Toledo submitted. In both cases, 5,244 signatures from registered voters were needed.

The Lake Erie group’s ballot proposal calls for a vote to amend the Toledo City Charter in a way that declares the Lake Erie watershed has legal rights to “exist and flourish.”

The Lake Erie Bill of Rights proposes the world’s 11th largest body of water be given rights as an ecosystem that citizens would be legally entitled to defend.

The legal complaint was submitted by the group’s attorney, Terry Lodge, who told the elections board at Tuesday’s meeting that he believed its action was “essentially an act of censorship.” He added in Friday’s statement that election board members cannot deny an initiative from the ballot based on their opinion of its contents.

“It is eye-opening to realize it is ‘legal’ for polluters to continue to harm the lake, but it is ‘illegal’ for the people to propose a law to protect the lake,” Markie Miller, one of the proposal’s organizers, said as part of the release. “We’re not just facing a perpetual threat to our water; the board’s illegal veto is a threat to our democratic rights.”

Toledoans for Safe Water has said the group’s ballot initiative was drafted by the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, which has worked with communities in at least 10 states to enact what are known as “rights to nature” laws.

The national legal-defense fund, based in Mercersburg, Pa., also does work in Nepal, India, Cameroon, Colombia, Australia, and other countries.

Much like another local group — Advocates for a Clean Lake Erie — Toledoans for Safe Water was created in response to the region’s 2014 water crisis. It had about 40 volunteers collecting signatures from registered Toledo voters the past two years.

Keep the Jail in Downtown Toledo said in its filing that it believes the elections board “improperly reviewed the substance of the proposed amendment,” engaged in an “unconstitutional pre-election review,” and denied citizens “their constitutional right to free speech and association.”

Contact Tom Henry at thenry@theblade.com, 419-724-6079, or via Twitter @ecowriterohio.

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