CELDF and words Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund in white letters on blue background

In several “news” articles posted over the past few weeks, oil and gas industry and their allies argue that a local Community Bill of Rights ballot initiative submitted by Youngstown voters is “too expensive” for the community. Inside Sources  (, WKBN News ( and The DailyDigger  ( present facts and figures provided by the industry (note: Inside Sources and The Daily Digger are the industry), leaving out the full story.

The Bigger Picture

The oil/gas industry lobbyist quoted in the articles is Jackie Stewart. Contrary to Stewart’s claim, there have been no special elections. Each community rights measure has been either on the primary or general election ballot. Yet, she claims the initiatives account for the cost of holding regularly scheduled elections.

There are approximately 40,000 registered voters in Youngstown. The only expenses that can be directly attributed to the people’s initiatives are the required advertising costs of $19,000. Over the course of six elections, that is approximately 8 cents per voter.

In her analysis of the cost of democracy, Stewart neglects to mention the cost of contaminated water sources and poisoned air. Who pays for clean water supplies? For repairs from earthquakes? For illness from the leaks, spills, and venting of toxic chemicals into the air we breathe? For the loss of property values?

Corporate State Attacks

Stewart’s attacks on Youngstown ballot measures are fueled, of course, by costs. If those persistent Youngstown residents can be shut down once and for all, it would save industry and its allies thousands of dollars: the Plumber’s and Pipefitters Local 396 alone has spent more than $450,000 to defeat the Bill of Rights. It’s adding up. (Industry has outspent the community group over 50-1 to defeat the measure.)

Furthermore, shutting down ballot measures by the people will reduce the number of Advil folks like Jackie Stewart probably take. It must be headache inducing when you are part of an industry that writes laws to promote and advance fossil fuel extraction, only to have community after community pop up with their own local legislation declaring rights to clean air and water, the right to self-government, and the right to protect themselves from fossil fuel extraction.

But no worries – “our” state representatives have Stewart’s back. Her buddies in the General Assembly slipped a provision into a foreclosure bill last December. The provision authorizes unelected bureaucrats and the Secretary of State to keep any initiative off the ballot if they deem it is illegal or unconstitutional. It is a direct attack against citizen initiatives such as those being advanced by Youngstown residents.

The Cost of the Corporate State

Let’s look at the cost of the corporate state in contrast to the “cost” of democracy. The state has acted on behalf of industry, passing HB463 to render meaningless the right to initiative. Further, our electeds provide corporate welfare (“subsidies”). Stewart does not talk about that either – but members and benefactors of the corporate state rarely do. The oil/gas industry has received almost $5 billion dollars annually in subsidies from the government (the people) since 1918. (page 29)

Some of us might argue such subsidies are simply too expensive. Many of us might not have allowed such subsidies if our right to govern was recognized and we the people participated in decision-making.


Inalienable Rights

To be clear, I am the Ohio Community Organizer for the non-profit, public interest law firm that helped these residents draft their ballot initiative. I believe the people have the right to propose laws and charters in their community – particularly when they are protecting themselves from harm when the government isn’t. I am a life-long Ohio resident. I believe in the words written in our state and federal constitutions, as well as the Declaration of Independence.

I learned through public education that “We the People” meant allthe people who live in the community, state, and country. My teachers never mentioned that the “people” included corporations. And when they taught us about the Declaration of Independence, of course that included people having the right and even the duty, to alter, reform and abolish any form of government that no longer protects their rights, and replace it with one that does. To me, those weren’t just words on paper.

Today, people of Ohio have the constitutional right to propose law themselves by circulating petitions and placing that proposed law on the ballot for the people in the community to vote on. How did that become part of our state constitution in 1912?

Citizen Initiative

It didn’t just happen. People like Herbert Bigelow of Cincinnati and others realized Ohio had a corrupt state legislature. The people needed a check and balance on them. Bigelow and his fellow activists worked very hard, for many years. They suffered loss of jobs and homes, and even physical attacks when fighting for the people’s right to initiative and referendum. When this proposed amendment finally went on the ballot, the people passed it. In 1934, the right to form a county charter by commission was added. In 1978, the right to directly propose a county charter for the ballot was established, giving the people a direct vote without going through a commission.

Today, many of us do not see our elected officials representing our interests. So, we’ve dusted off our constitution and decided to use that check and balance Herbert Bigelow fought for so long ago. 

In response, the Jackie Stewarts of the state and the legislature are trying to strip our right to propose laws – the very right Bigelow and others fought so hard to codify. Industry spews propaganda to defeat the measures, and tries to crush citizen initiative by arguing it’s “too expensive.”

Across the State

This goes beyond Youngstown. In Athens and Medina Counties, residents are proposing a county charter for the 3rd year in a row, and a similar fight is on to block them. Students and community members in Bowling Green are proposing a “Right to a Livable Climate” law and are also hearing talk of keeping them off the ballot. Just how can the people possibly “alter or reform” the government if the government blocks them from doing so?

The Mahoning County Board of Elections website says, “Were it not for the democratic process of voting, this nation and most of the world would still be living, for the most part, in the Dark Ages, uninformed and subjected to the will of a few.”

If the Jackie Stewarts of the state prevail, we are indeed in the “Dark Ages.” I hope “we the people” will not fall for this form of voter suppression, and that we will stand together with the people of Youngstown, Medina, Athens, Bowling Green, and all the other communities willing to do the hard work of circulating petitions in order to give all of us a check and balance on a legislature out of control.