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Boards of elections, secretary of state sued over ballot rejections

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    Kathie Jones of Sustainable Medina County is shown during a town hall meeting last year in Guilford Township. Jones is part of a federal civil rights lawsuit filed Friday against their respective Board of Elections and the Ohio secretary of the state in the U.S. Northern District Court.

    GAZETTE FILE

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Two people from Medina County are part of a federal civil rights lawsuit filed Friday against respective Board of Elections and the Ohio secretary of the state in the U.S. Northern District Court in Youngstown.

Filing the suit from Medina County were Kathie Jones, of Sharon Township, and Gerald Dolcini, of Hinckley Township, both members of the grassroots group Sustainable Medina County.

Members of seven Ohio community groups aiming to protect the environment are part of the lawsuit. Among the 27 plaintiffs were individuals from Youngstown, Toledo and Columbus, as well as Portage, Athens and Meigs counties.

They filed suit against Secretary of the State Frank LaRose and his predecessor and now lieutenant governor, Jon Husted, and seven Boards of Elections around the state.

That includes the Medina County board of Pam Miller, Larry Cray, John Welker and Sharon Ray.

Miller, president of the Medina County Board of Elections, said she was unable to comment on the lawsuit.

A spokeswoman said LaRose’s office does not comment on pending legislation.

The complaint alleges officials violated the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights of freedom of speech, right of assembly, right to petition the government for redress of grievances, right to vote, right of due process, and right of local, community self-government.

“In the years 2015, 2016 and 2017, over 17,000 registered Medina County voters were denied their right to direct democracy through ballot initiative and referendum,” Jones said in a statement. “These rights have long been guaranteed by the Ohio Constitution.

“Our elected officials, at the behest of the oil and gas industry, have trampled our constitutional rights for far too long.”

Plaintiffs aren’t seeking a monetary award.

“We want the court to rule that the Ohio Secretary of State and the Medina County Board of Elections violated the Constitutional rights of Medina County voters by not permitting the county charter initiative on the ballot,” Jones said.

Dolcini wants to fight corporate forces.

“All over our country there are destructive corporate forces polluting our air, water and soil, poisoning our communities with cancerous chemicals from the extraction of gas, oil and coal, and buying off politicians and government officials who are responsible for our environmental oversight,” he said. “The people must have the power to protect their environment and their health.”

The plaintiffs say the Ohio Constitution guarantees Ohioans the right to direct democracy through initiative and referendum. All of the plaintiff communities have collected signatures to place initiatives on the ballot at some point between 2015 and 2018, and all have been blocked from the ballot.

The plaintiffs say these were unlawful actions by the defendants. The complaint describes these actions as “placing unlawful blockades, insurmountable hurdles, and arbitrary and irrational procedures between the people of Ohio and their exercise and enjoyment of direct democracy.”

Sustainable Medina County, founded in 2014, advocates for local, direct democratic control over energy policy and fossil fuel projects taking place within the county.

Sustainable Medina’s members opposed construction of the NEXUS pipeline through Medina County because of the environmental damage it has induced and because it contradicts the public interest.

Sustainable Medina members drafted and proposed three county charters to alter the form of government in Medina County. They gathered, on average, more than 6,000 signatures annually to place those proposals on the ballot.

On all three occasions, its efforts were denied by the Ohio Supreme Court.

The county charters were intended to empower county officials to create and pass local legislation, and to institute a county charter that extended the right to initiate legislation to residents of unincorporated parts of the county.

“Our government is based on the premise that the people create government to protect their rights and that when government is no longer doing that, the people have the right to alter, reform or abolish that government and form a new one that does,” Susie Beiersdorfer, a Youngstown plaintiff, said in a statement.

“When the very government that is violating the people’s rights is blocking them from making change, we cannot accept this. We need to challenge it and protect our right to self-govern.

“In Ohio we need to protect our right to direct democracy though the initiative process. That is what this lawsuit is about.”

The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, a nonprofit, public interest law firm, has been representing these community members throughout the years, assisting in the drafting of the proposed ordinances, defending the people in the court challenges over ballot access, and filed this federal court action.

Contact reporter Bob Finnan at rfinnan@medina-gazette.com.


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