A hearing will be held Wednesday in Athens County Common Pleas Court to determine if a proposed county charter will be on the November ballot.

The matter ended up in court because the Athens County Board of Elections rejected the ballot issue on grounds the measure is not a valid charter because it does not structurally change county government. That prompted the Bill of Rights Committee, which had proposed the charter, to ask the elections board to take action to put the matter before court.

At a meeting Monday, the elections board voted unanimously to send a letter requesting action by the court. After the letter and other related materials were filed in the Clerk of Courts Office, Deputy Elections Director Penny Brooks and County Prosecutor Keller Blackburn hand delivered the items to Judge George McCarthy.

McCarthy convened a hearing, but no one from the Bill of Rights Committee was present.

“I think they’re entitled to be here,” McCarthy said. Upon learning that members were demonstrating outside the Courthouse, he recessed the hearing until they could be informed of the hearing. Several committee members arrived for the hearing.

“We need to present legal arguments that it is a valid charter,” committee member Nancy Pierce said prior to the court reconvening. She then asked McCarthy for time to allow their attorney (who is based in Toledo) to present those arguments.

McCarthy scheduled a hearing for Wednesday at 9 a.m.

That apparently won’t leave much time for McCarthy to make a decision. Blackburn told the court that the Ohio law under which the matter was brought to court requires the judge to make a decision 110 days before the election, at the latest. Election officials calculated the deadline to be Wednesday at 4 p.m.

McCarthy called the haste by which the court must make a decision “a little ridiculous.”

Pierce indicated to the court that the committee’s attorney might argue that the judge is not bound by that deadline, which she said is in conflict with another election law deadline. Although they filed it earlier, the committee could have legally waited until 110 days before the election to file its petition to put the charter issue on the ballot. If does not make sense, Pierce said, that the judge’s deadline would also be 110 days before the election, since a last-minute filing of the petition would have made it impossible to even take the matter to court.

The proposed charter states that it would be illegal to use Athens County as a disposal site for frack water and other byproducts of high-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing (commonly referred to as ‘fracking’). It also states that it would be illegal to use water from Athens County for high-volume fracking to extract shale gas and oil.

Andrea Reik, a member of the committee, said election boards in three other counties have approved placing of charter issues on this November’s ballot. Some of those charter issues are nearly identical to the proposed Athens County charter.

At Monday’s meeting of the Athens County Board of Elections, board member Ken Ryan said the board felt it could not put a charter on the ballot that it believed was not valid. He likened it to allowing a candidate on the ballot under a false name. Blackburn had earlier advised the board that the measure is not a valid charter, although he also recommended that it be placed on the ballot because the Ohio attorney general had not yet ruled on whether such charters are valid.

srobb@athensmessenger.com; Twitter @SteveRmessenger

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