The Ohio Supreme Court on Friday again ruled against petitioners seeking to put a Lake Erie Bill of Rights on the November ballot in Toledo, marking the second time in as many days that the state’s highest judicial body has opposed the will of at least some local voters.
A citizen group called Toledoans for Safe Water in August said it had collected enough signatures to send to the ballot a measure to amend the city charter and declare the Lake Erie watershed has rights to “exist and flourish.” That signature drive marked the beginning of a legal battle that culminated Friday when the Supreme Court rejected the final effort by Toledoans for a Safe Water to get the ballot question before voters.
The Friday ruling comes a day after the same court denied a request from another group seeking to force the elections board to include on the ballot a proposal to keep the Lucas County jail in downtown Toledo. While the court’s action has effectively ensured the two citizen initiatives will not go before voters, the core issues of why they were kept from the ballot are far from settled.
In the 4-3 opinion issued Thursday against the group supporting “Keep the Jail in Downtown Toledo,” the court’s majority said proper procedures were not followed because City Council did not approve an ordinance to submit a proposed charter amendment to the elections board.
But Toledo officials say they consulted the City Charter and found that the city council clerk could approve the measure rather than take it to a council vote.
“We are still reviewing the Supreme Court’s 4 to 3 opinion on this complex issue,” said Toledo law director Dale Emch. “The City of Toledo acted in a manner that is consistent with our City Charter for the process of amending the charter by petition. We believe this approach honored the will of the people to get this issue on the ballot without the barrier of requiring Council approval.”
The charter, in part, reads: “It shall be the duty of the Clerk to notify the election authorities of the adoption by the Council of a resolution for submission of a proposed amendment, or of his or her determination that a sufficient petition for submission has been filed with him or her; and the Clerk shall request the election authorities to provide for an election as aforesaid.”
Supporters of both initiatives vocally opposed an August 4-0 vote by the elections board to exclude both the jail and Lake Erie initiatives on advice from the board’s attorney because both exceeded the authority of Toledo law.
Sean Nestor, campaign manager for Toledoans for Safe Water, said the group’s fight was not over despite Friday’s supreme court decision, even if that extends to fighting for access to a future ballot. He said they were exploring other legal and political options, but declined to offer specifics.
“We are absolutely committed to Lake Erie one way or another,” he said.
Assistant county prosecutor Kevin Pituch, who represented the elections board in both lawsuits, said Friday that the court’s affirmation of its previous ruling on the Lake Erie issue was expected.
“The court’s decision that it initially issued speaks for itself,” Mr. Pituch said, though he noted that the larger issues would likely re-emerge next year.
Mr. Nestor, who is also an organizer with the jail group, said the board and court have shown hostility to citizen action.
“Democracy needs to be respected and we live in a time where on every level government representatives are being hostile to public opinion and that’s scary,” he said.
Staff writer Sarah Elms contributed to this report.
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