The court hearing on the rejection of the county charter petition by the Williams County Board of Elections is set for 10 a.m. Tuesday, July 16, in Williams County Common Pleas Court.
The Williams County Alliance, a locally based residents group, is seeking to put a county charter initiative on the November ballot, at least partly as a way to fight a plan by a Pioneer company to privatize water from the local aquifer, commonly referred to as the Michindoh Aquifer.
In late June, the Alliance submitted more than 2,500 signatures, and the elections office validated 2,077 of the signatures — more than the 1,364 required for the initiative to move forward.
But on July 8, the county elections board rejected the petition by a 3-1 vote after Elections Director A.J. Nowaczyk ruled that based on his conversations with the board’s legal counsel — County Prosecutor Katie Zartman — and in his own opinion, language in the proposed charter issue exceeds the scope of the powers afforded to local governments by the state.
The Alliance’s Toledo-based attorney Terry Lodge then asked that the issue be brought before the Williams County Court of Common Pleas on or before July 17, which he said is within the timeframe — 111 days before the general election — prescribed by state statute. Lodge called the board’s denial “unlawful” and said the reasoning for the rejection was “constitutionally invalid.”
In response, the Williams County Board of Commissioners has hired the Columbus law firm of McTigue & Colombo to act as special prosecutors on behalf of the Williams County Elections Board. McTigue & Colombo were brought in at Zartman’s request because of what she called the firm’s expertise in election law and ballot access.
The proposed charter petition seeks to change Williams County from a statutory form of government to a charter, which supporters said would give the county more local decision-making and provide a way to legally oppose efforts by Artesian of Pioneer (AOP) to drill into the local aquifer and deliver up to 14 million gallons a day to entities outside the county.
The Alliance’s Sherry Fleming said Friday she was disappointed at the board’s reasoning and actions in rejecting the petition and questioned why the county commissioners would support Zartman’s request for outside legal assistance.
McTigue and Colombo has represented clients in other cities, including Toledo, Bowling Green and Columbus, in attempts to keep citizen initiatives off ballots.
Fleming also questioned why county taxpayers are incurring the cost — $300 an hour for McTigue & Colombo attorneys and $100 per hour for paralegals — for outside attorneys to help defend the rejection.
“It’s a pretty clear message they don’t want this to go on the ballot,” Fleming said, calling McTigue & Colombo an “anti-democratic law firm.”
The Alliance, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, has an agreement for Lodge’s service for $1 through the Pennsylvania-based Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), Fleming said.