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by danps

Home rule on that ballot this election season: activists versus institutions

4:18 am in Uncategorized by danps

Cross posted from Pruning Shears.

Ohioans have experienced a number of different frustrations in trying to get their government to be responsive to their concerns about fracking. The biggest one may be the state’s usurping of home rule of home rule on the issue. Ohio’s Constitution had home rule – basically, the right of cities and towns to self-government – enshrined in it back in 1912, but in 2004 the state passed a law stripping localities of the right to legislate on the issue.

On the face of it, that wouldn’t seem to be something that would pass judicial scrutiny. It would seem to be problematic to go to all the trouble of amending the Constitution to spell something out, then have the statehouse come back later on and say “yeah, not for that.”

On the other hand, it’s all just words on a page without anyone to respect it, right? The US Constitution says Congress shall pass no law regarding the establishment of a religion, but the only thing preventing Congress from doing just that is its sense of forbearance and its respect for tradition. It isn’t as though representatives would be struck dead by bolts of lightning from Avenging Lady Justice if they did so.

Similarly, nothing requires the Supreme Court to overturn such a law. Certainly the current court is no great respecter of precedent; more often it seems to start with its preferred political outcome and work the jurisprudence back from there (corporations are people! money is speech!)

As long as legislators are brazen enough to pass whatever they want and defy the court to tell them no (and here in Ohio our leaders won’t just dare the court to overturn them, they will actually ignore court decisions reversing them), everything in the whole wide world is grey area. Just imagine how muddy it gets on an issue like municipal home rule, where the state actually admits (PDF) “situations are open to court interpretation on a case-by-case basis.”

The only way for a town to figure out if it really has home rule, then, is to challenge the state and assert the right to self-government. This has recently been happening in the form of citizen-led initiatives, and they have a very interesting characteristic: more of an outsider-versus-establishment dynamic than a liberal-versus-conservative one. For the most part, Republicans are enthusiastically pro-fracking and Democrats are acquiescent. Columbus is wired to serve the oil and gas industry, and the next big challenge to it from the capitol will be the first.

So efforts like those in Mansfield and Broadview Heights are happening with essentially zero political support. If you want to see honest to God grassroots political activism, this is a great example. For an even more dramatic example, look at the communities that have not yet secured home rule. In Randolph Township (Portage County), two activists worked to get a vote for limited home rule on the ballot and they are doing their best to whip up support for the measure. One of them, Newt Engle, spoke at a public meeting last week, and here is his explanation of how it came about:

Then listen to how he describes the pushback they got from law directors, commissioners, and so on:

The political establishment is completely aligned against these people, and that makes their efforts a tall order. In addition, home rule has certain requirements (here is a nice primer (PDF)), which opponents are using to raise the specter of big, scary taxes. That talking point is something between wildly overblown and flatly untrue1, but getting the word out is difficult – especially without a political base of party support to stand on.

Without that base of support, activists are left to raise awareness on their own. Their efforts have generated a decent amount of local media coverage, which obviously helps to spread the word, but the industry has the resources to flood the airwaves with ads. There are lots of commercials about the wonderfulness of natural gas on both TV and radio. The industry has that filed pretty much to itself, and it has made extensive use of it.

Considering all those disadvantages, there may well be more failures than successes on these initiatives. Supporters would probably be wise to set their expectations to that effect. It would be easy for a few defeats to create an outsized sense of discouragement. If activists see themselves as settled in for a ongoing effort though, it could lead to some interesting developments. At a minimum, a long term effort with zero party support would create an increasing demand for something to provide that political backing. And politics, as nature, abhors a vacuum.


NOTES

1. Engle looked into the additional cost and posted an extended comment on an anti-home rule site. The comment was deleted, but Engle saved a copy of it before it went away. This excerpt address the cost of police protection, which one trustee put at $376,000 (really!)

Now let’s look at the issue of police protection. Yes, the trustees have a quote of nearly $376,000 for the Sheriff to provide 48 hours of police protection a week for a year. Truth is we could probably get the cost up to over a million dollars if we asked for 24-7 coverage. But let’s be real. The ORC (Ohio Revised Code) does not specify how many hours the police must be in the township if we have limited home rule. The “fact” is the ORC only requires the township to provide police protection on a regular basis. Furthermore the ORC stipulates several different ways this requirement can be satisfied. When I went and talked to Sheriff Doak, he indicated he was only asked to provide a quote. He was not asked about any other options or if he would be willing to keep patrolling the township just like he is now. But let me stop here and let you know that the Sheriff’s office is so poorly funded that Randolph Township is very rarely “patrolled” by the Sheriff’s department at all. Most of the time the deputies only come to our township to take a report. Therefore this idea that limited home rule would require the township to pay for 48 hours of police protection is simply not true. Our Sheriff and his deputies are currently doing a fine job in our township. Why change a thing? With a little negotiating the township will be able to allow the Sheriff to keep providing the same police protection we are enjoying now at little to no cost.

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by danps

Hiram residents attempt to ask questions about fracking

4:09 pm in Uncategorized by danps

Thursday’s post on Hiram’s public fracking meeting mainly covered residents’ interaction with local officials. The bigger part of the meeting, though, featured two speakers with ties to the oil and gas industry.

A representative from the company Mountaineer Keystone (MK) made a few opening remarks. He then turned things over to Rhonda Reda of the Ohio Oil and Gas Energy Education Program (OOGEEP ), a group that is “funded exclusively by Ohio’s crude oil and natural gas producers and royalty owners.”

As the MK rep goes through his introduction a resident asks (begins1 at 1:10) “Can’t we start out with questions from the floor?” From the reaction it was clear at least some in the audience were in favor. There was a real concern that what was about to commence was a dog and pony show that would eat up precious time and do nothing to quiet any concerns.

Now, the speakers clearly had spent time on their presentations and wanted to go through them in an orderly way. I can understand their concern that a free for all might cause their carefully prepared remarks to get jumbled. But surely there were options beside a rigid adherence to the game plan and chaos, no? Couldn’t the MK rep or Reda have started with five minutes of questions from the most concerned citizens, then gone through their material?

Apparently not, because the rep responds “I think we’re going to go with education first.” And with that Reda takes over. Many in the crowd really wanted to start off with questions, though. One resident says (same clip as above, 2:29):

I have questions and I know other people in the audience have questions that I can assure you will not be in your talk. And I can assure you that the majority of the people in this room who are not from Mountaineer Keystone…

At which point a town trustee interrupts and assures her all her questions will be answered by the educational material. Many were not so sure, though, as represented by this exchange (starts at 3:50):

REDA: A lot of the people here may not have heard or seen some of this, and so I do want to try and address their questions as well…

CITIZEN: Sounds like a filibuster to me.

REDA: Excuse me?

CITIZEN: It sounds like a filibuster to me – spending time…we already told you. You say that you want to start with education. We don’t…

REDA: Ma’am, anybody that wants…

CITIZEN: Who wants to start with questions? [scattered applause]

REDA: In order to ask an educated question you have to be educated on the subject, and based on the number of hands you do not have to stay. If you’ve already listened to this you do not have to stay for this, but there’s a lot of people that requested this presentation and this educational format2. So if you’re not interested in it, you are welcome to leave [gestures to exit], but I am going to go through this and try to address a lot of the questions.

If you haven’t watched any of the video clips at this point, please try to if you can. No one asking questions does so with the slightest bit of menace. There is no violence or threat of violence, no one gets into her personal space, no one does so much as point an aggressive finger in her direction. Yet when another audience member challenges her qualifications, she has him thrown out. She then takes on an air of wounded grievance and indulges in some dramatic, persecuted rhetoric (start of clip):

I’m going to apologize to folks and explain to you why I have asked for police officers to be here. I’m a mom. I’ve got two kids. My son I just dropped off at Kent State, if any of you are Kent State fans, he’ll be playing football at Kent State. I plan on seeing my son’s football games. I also have a daughter who just got engaged. I plan on being at her wedding. Unfortunately at some of these public events we have been aggressively approached, we’ve had death threats and other things just explaining the science. It is my family’s request that these officers are here, and it’s the only way I agreed to continue doing these presentations, which is a shame that here in the country I have to have security officers to explain the process.

To me that’s just a cheap psychological ploy to try and gain sympathy from the crowd and stifle dissent. I don’t know if the former happened but the latter sure did. It is abundantly clear throughout the entire presentation that she is never in the slightest danger, yet she invokes the specter of physical assault – and even death. Whatever the intent, it had the effect of completely shutting down citizens at a public meeting. In my book that’s not someone dealing in good faith.

As you might imagine, the rest of her speech was uneventful. There are more clips from the night at the Shalersville Against Fracking site (click on the You Tube icon to go to our channel), and while I did not record the entire presentation there should be enough video to give you a sense of its tone and viewpoint.

I’ll just leave you with a visual editorial moment. Reda seemed to assume there was a silent majority of the room on her side, that those who were speaking out were just a handful of malcontents in a sea of supporters. Here’s a clip of one of those silent supporters taking out a cell phone and killing time with a game of solitaire while Reda was educating us.

No one was asking questions, though. Mission accomplished.


NOTES

1. As with last week, I once again apologize for the quality of the clips. I was using a small handheld recorder and also trying to wrangle a bored and restless child (citizen journalism!); please excuse the occasional wandering view and quiet audio.
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2. I’m not sure how many people requested that particular educational format – none of the residents I was aware of did – but those who felt a little dubious about it had reason to feel that way. Some of the material was almost crazily broad and unsupported. One of the slides basically read (and this is only a slight exaggeration):

JOBS
Here are some jobs that pay a lot of money!
(table)

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by danps

Hiram residents seek local control on fracking

4:12 am in Uncategorized by danps

On Tuesday the town of Hiram, OH, held a public meeting with representatives of the company Mountaineer Keystone (MK). MK, a subsidiary of First Reserve Corporation, is set to begin fracking operations in Hiram next month. The company is a bit of an enigma; for one, it does not appear to have a web site, just a generic landing page at First Reserve. Also, according to Business Week it was founded in 2010 and lists no Key Executives. So who exactly the public was meeting with was something of a mystery.

Before the MK portion kicked off, though, we had remarks from one of the township trustees, and another from its counsel. The subtext of the evening seemed to be, you can’t do anything. (With local officials there was also a leitmotif of “our hands are tied.”) Over and over citizens pressed: we don’t like this, we don’t want this here, what can we do about it? And the answer, over and over again, was: Nothing; this is a done deal. It all smacked of an effort to inculcate a sense of despair, hopelessness, cynicism or at least sullen resignation among citizens.

The town counsel began by taking some questions, and residents tried to probe for different ways to slow down this runaway train. Ohio has home rule nominally enshrined in its Constitution, but the Small Government Conservatives in Columbus have happily chipped away at it whenever it has threatened (as in this case) to result in a messy outburst of local control.

Residents asked some creative questions, though. One asked about being annexed by a larger neighboring municipality in order to get a greater degree of local control.1 (starts around 3:35):

Counsel could have said, yes that’s an option and maybe something we could look into. Instead he hems and haws a little bit, then says it still wouldn’t help to ban fracking. That, though, is a straw man argument. At the start of the clip (around 1:00) a resident asks about keeping the roads in good condition, and seeing trucks sloshing fluid all over. The speaker says, somewhat hilariously, “they’re supposed to prevent that.” Somehow they aren’t, though! And for a township crying poverty – see below – as a reason for why it cannot enforce the law within its borders, perhaps annexation to a larger community might make those resources available. It’s not about banning fracking at this point, just trying to keep existing ordinances observed.

Another resident asked (start of clip) why a noise ordinance couldn’t be enforced. The trustee responded that the township didn’t have the manpower to enforce it, and after a little back-and-forth she says: How about volunteer police officers?

Just like in the Old West, right? Deputize concerned citizens, but instead of handing them Colt 45′s hand them decibel meters. Give them a pad of citations and some quick instructions for how to document them. Let them hand out fines to offenders, or even just mail them. No need to risk any kind of confrontation. It could all be done in a completely peaceful and lawful way. Include a series of escalating sanctions, starting with fines and eventually leading to eviction.

That would be a bit of an unorthodox approach, but this is a circumstance that calls for a little outside the box thinking, no? Home rule has been gutted, town officials are saying they’re broke – why not give it a shot, especially since (KEY POINT AHEAD!) it is a matter of great concern to a large number of citizens?

Both the trustee and lawyer bat her concerns away, though, and her comment at 2:24 is a good summary for the meeting: “That’s my question. I guess you don’t have an answer.” After which counsel points to the next resident. No answer indeed.

The unresponsiveness of the officials brought to mind a concept I first encountered in Dana Nelson’s Bad For Democracy (p. 177): plebiscetary democracy. As Barney Frank described it relative to the Bush years, this is a system “wherein a leader is elected but once elected has almost all of the power” (Cf. Bush’s accountability moment).

These officials continually defer all proposals to the state level. Try getting the industry-friendly government in Columbus to do something about it, they say – which is really just a polite way of saying shut up and go away. By and large local officials bristle at any kind of pressure to act on this issue. There was an accountability moment a couple years ago, is the implication. You had your chance, now buzz off. See you next election day.

Some citizens, though, believe accountability moments happen at more frequent intervals.


NOTES

1. Video was shot with my modest handheld recorder, so the quality is a bit iffy in places. If you can turn the volume way up it will probably help to hear everything.
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