Columbus Community Bill of Rights' co-organizer Carolyn Harding inspects several of the 13 regional frack waste water injection wells with Columbus City Councilmember Elizabeth Brown. CCBOR's logo is also pictured as the original image could not be acquired. 

The citizen-led ProEnergy Ohio ballot initiative is likely making Columbus City Council, the Mayor’s Office and the Columbus Partnership take serious pause. Many believed the initiative was doomed, yet it made it on November’s ballot. Unfortunately, another environmental citizen-led initiative that many activists championed will not get a vote, and remains in limbo.

Columbus City Council in 2020 voted against putting ProEnergy Ohio’s “Columbus Clean Energy Initiative” on a future ballot even though the Franklin County Board of Elections found ProEnergy had collected enough valid signatures. City Council argued ProEnergy’s summary language for the initiative was insufficient.

But ProEnergy filed suit in Ohio Supreme Court and won. In a 5-2 decision the court stated City Council’s denial was illegitimate and “abused its discretion”.

City spokesperson Melanie Crabil told the Free Press in an email, “We can confirm that it will be on the November ballot.”

The initiative seeks to divert $87 million from the City’s budget towards, as stated on ProEnergy Ohio’s Facebook page: “Lower electric bills with clean energy subsidies, promote a clean energy economy with job training, build on existing energy efficiency programs, advance inclusivity by providing grants and capital to minority business in clean energy, and so much more.”

ProEnergy Ohio has proposed that roughly 60 percent of the $87 million in taxpayer dollars would be used to give Columbus residents a choice in how their electricity is generated, from wind or solar, for instance, but specifics on how this will work have not been presented.

As mentioned, local powerbrokers must be wringing their hands. Last year Mayor Ginther told the Dispatch that if ProEnergy Ohio’s initiative passes it could mean laying off 450 Columbus police officers. Columbus Partnership’s CEO Alex Fischer also sounding the alarm, telling the Dispatch: “People trying to steal tax dollars in the most obnoxious and offensive way I’ve ever seen.”

Some activists have spoken against the initiative, saying ProEnergy has not sufficiently clarified its mission and this could be an out-of-state corporate attempt to highjack local efforts to deliver clean energy to residents.

The Ohio Environmental Council (OEC) Action Fund also opposes the “Columbus Clean Energy Initiative.” This proposed initiative may look beneficial to Columbus’s environment and its residents, the OEC said in an email to the Free Press, but at its core, “it is thin on details and short-circuits the city’s ability to mitigate the causes of climate change.” 

“Because the city is already moving toward 100% clean energy, the creation of the funds in the ballot initiative is superfluous at best, and outright thievery at worst,” wrote OEC staff attorney Chris Tavenor. “The initiative’s language calls for the transfer of funds into the hands of a privately held corporation, and it further permits that corporation to receive ‘administrative’ fees for the distribution of subsidies. Simply put, a corporation has placed itself in a position to benefit from taxpayer dollars when the city has already created a program in pursuit of similar goals: Clean Energy Columbus. Columbus does not need a private corporation as a financial third party in the pursuit of energy efficiency, clean energy, and electric affordability.”

ProEnergy Ohio’s director – 50-year-old John Clarke, a Columbus resident for 30 years – was indicted late in 2020 by Franklin County prosecutors on two felony charges of election falsification and two felony charges of tampering with government records.

According to former Prosecutor Ron O’Brien the charges stem from Clarke allegedly making false statements about the amount of contributions to ProEnergy and who exactly made those contributions.

Nevertheless, some who have befriended John Clarke say the avalanche of criticism against Clarke and ProEnergy may not be warranted. And that the City’s response to the Columbus Clean Energy Initiative is typical of how the City now handles citizen-drive ballot initiatives: deny, deny, deny.

Local attorney Connie Gadell-Newton represented the Clean Energy Initiative in the Ohio Supreme Court and also is defending Clark against the felonies. She does not think Clarke is guilty of fraud but that the charges arose due to relying on an attorney-treasurer who did not do his job.

This attorney-treasurer was hired to ensure that the ballot initiative complied with campaign finance law, yet he did not set up a bank account, do his due diligence to ensure that the correct forms were used, or that the correct information was reported, according to Gadell-Newton. For full disclosure, Gadell-Newton is the legal partner of Columbus Free Press Editor Bob Fitrakis.

What’s more, the City, after required campaign finance paperwork has been submitted, allows mistakes within the paperwork to be corrected, she says.

“Generally speaking, if mistakes are made in campaign finance forms they may be amended. Clarke was charged for the incorrect information and he was charged again with falsification for trying to provide the correct information. The city filed these charges without allowing him to amend and correct the mistakes,” said Gadell-Newton.

Gadell-Newton says “Consider ProEnergy and Clarke’s entire effort to get their initiative on the ballot. Also consider how the citizen-led Columbus Community Bill of Rights’ ballot initiative was treated by City Council – also rejected on a so-called technicality.” The initiative is seeking to ban fracking within city borders, and by all accounts the local activists have done everything that’s required by the City, but the City and others keep throwing up hurdles, they say.

“The Clean Energy Initiative established a committee as required by statute, got the required signatures, jumped through all of the hoops and turned everything into City Council on time. They met all of the requirements,” says Gadell-Newton. “The City looked at the content of the valid initiative and they rejected it illegally because they didn’t like it and they didn’t know who he was. As a minority, he wasn’t part of the good old boy’s club of Columbus. The Ohio Supreme Court reviewed everything and ruled that the City would have to put it on the ballot so that the voters could decide.”

Gadell-Newton describes Clarke as an “entrepreneur” and a “family man.” He’s apparently been pushing his ballot initiative since 2017. But questions linger whether his intentions are truly “green” and not “greedy.” It is unclear if he is set on creating localized clean-energy initiatives so to promote a “clean energy economy” or are his critics justified in saying he’s out to fleece taxpayers?

This entire situation has another interesting side note: a proposition for voters that will make many in City government – and the Columbus Division of Police, for that matter – cringe even more.

Is the “Columbus Clean Energy Initiative” a chance for residents to make their own personal decision to force City Council and the Mayor defund the police?

“A lot of this money is intended to go to minorities, and our minority population in Columbus needs it,” says Gadell-Newton. “The Mayor has complained that if this money is diverted from the budget they will have to defund the police. Instead of balancing out the budget and giving our police force a more reasonable budget – so we have more money for education, for instance – they just want to keep giving police rocket launchers and helicopters to use against civilians.”

“Stifling democracy” is a strong accusation, but these are the exact words that local activists – self-described as a “small army of unpaid volunteers” working “thousands of hours” since 2014 – use to explain how City Council, the Columbus Chamber of Commerce, and the gas and oil industry have treated their Columbus Community Bill of Rights citizen-driven ballot initiative.

Essentially, the Columbus Community Bill of Rights’ (CCBOR)initiative is seeking to ban fracking and assure fracking waste water doesn’t enter the region’s extensive watershed that webs through the community and supplies most of the local drinking water.

CCBOR says there are 13 active injection wells located in the Central Ohio region which store fracking waste water, and many are north of Columbus and thus the bulk of the community is downstream. The structural integrity of these wells is unknown but some are clearly rusted (see picture above). Fracking waste water contains 1000 chemicals, such as radium 226 and 228, which remains radioactive for thousands of years.  

In 2018, the third time these activists spent a year gathering signatures to get on the ballot, they had 3,000 more than needed. (You can see CCBOR’s history here.)

But then the Franklin County Board of Elections – which is supposed to be an administrative entity – found a way to keep them off the ballot with help from the Ohio legislature, which had passed a provision in a bill that gave county Boards of Elections the unconstitutional authority to block a citizen-led initiative off a ballot if it was deemed “beyond a municipal’s authority.”

“The oil and gas industry, the Chamber of Commerce, and all these other ones who are very against things like ours, they found somebody who submitted an objection to our initiative being placed on the ballot,” says CCBOR co-organizer Bill Lyons. “We later found it was a secretary who works for a law firm that represents the oil and gas industry against initiatives in other places in Ohio.”

CCBOR refused to quit, and at Comfest 2019 began their fourth attempt to get on the ballot. Nine months later and on the verge of reaching the signatures needed the pandemic brought them to a screeching halt. City law only allows a single year to collect the necessary amount and they denied CCBOR’s request for an emergency extension, the City Attorney’s office telling them:“Neither the Mayor nor Council have the power to override the charter, even during an emergency.”  

Keep in mind Columbus had no signature time limit prior to 2014, and no other city in Ohio has a one-year time limit on signature gathering for an initiative.

CCBOR asked City Council to put their initiative on the ballot themselves, which they legally can do. But they refused. So CCBOR sued in federal court asking to extend the one-year deadline. During arguments the City said they should have been collecting during Black Lives Matter protests and that Gov. DeWine’s stay-at-home order exempted free speech activities.

In April of this year the federal judge agreed with the City citing “the need to avoid overcrowded ballots, decreasing fraud and to ensure timely review by both election officials and the judiciary.” 

Besides the petroleum industry, City Council, the Ohio legislature, now a federal judge blocked CCBOR. The 9,000 signatures collected this time become useless.

“We’ve really learned of the extent that the system is so designed to work against us,” says Lyons of CCBOR’s six-year odyssey. “It’s made us more determined to take the power and act ourselves, because only we can protect ourselves. The system does not want democracy and doesn’t citizens to protect their health. It’s very frustrating and hard to keep doing this because the effort involved is thousands of hours.”