Two women holding protest signs

Columbus Metropolitan Club public forum luncheons are usually interesting and informative, if a little sedate. But the atmosphere was lively on Wednesday. As they arrived, attendees were greeted by demonstrators from the Ohio Community Rights Network (OHCRN).

Ohio Secretary of State John Husted was there to speak about Ohio Ballot Issues 1, 2, and 3. The protesters came from across Ohio to denounce Husted's decision to remove three county charter initiatives from the November ballot.

The initiatives include home rule provisions to restrict or ban fracking wastewater injection wells and pipelines in Fulton, Medina, and Athens Counties. "The Secretary of State claimed he was 'unmoved' by the people’s argument defending their right to petition," said Kathie Jones of Medina County. "He claimed that the content of the initiatives are illegal, and therefore cannot be on the ballot. Yet he does not hesitate to place Issues 2 and 3 on the ballot — initiatives to legalize marijuana, which violate federal law.

"This is nothing less than hypocrisy," Jones said. "The oil and gas companies got what they paid for with their campaign contributions.”

Audience members usually ask their own questions from the microphone in CMC forums, but for Husted's presentation questions were screened beforehand and read by a volunteer. Three residents of the affected counties attended the luncheon and submitted questions to Husted about his decision. None of their inquiries were selected, but Husted responded to this question by Bethany Houston: "Would you please speak to what gives the Secretary of State the authority to invalidate recent charter amendments and local ballot initiatives in Athens and other counties in Ohio?"

"The Constitution, the law, is what gives me that authority," Husted said. "The General Assembly put the authority for regulating [fracking] in the hands of the state. That was challenged before the [Ohio] Supreme Court. It upheld the Ohio law. Therefore the municipal or county charter ordinances are not valid. It is on that basis that we made the decisions."

Husted denied that this takes the democratic process away from the people. "The proper venue for that is before the legislature, or to use the initiative process to take the issue to the voters of the State of Ohio," he said.

Unmoved by Husted's argument, the three county residents unfurled protest banners after the forum. One read: “Let the People Vote!”

"Article 1, Section 2 of the Ohio Constitution codifies the right of the people to alter or reform their government, said OHCRN president Tish O’Dell. "Our Constitution also codifies our right to initiative. How are we supposed to alter or reform our government if that same government blocks our initiatives? If the Ohio Supreme Court upholds the Secretary of State’s decision, all future initiatives, regardless of the issue, are at risk. And our constitutional rights — which sound irrevocable and inalienable in theory — are rendered meaningless."

After the forum, the OHCRN activists marched to the Ohio Supreme Court building on Front Street. Even though Husted has the Attorney General’s office at his disposal to defend his decision in the current litigation before the Supreme Court, he has chosen to hire Bricker and Eckler, the largest law firm in the state. Bricker and Eckler also represents Spectra Energy, the company behind the Nexus shale gas pipeline, which would run through two of the counties whose home rule charter initiatives were thrown off the ballot by Husted.