Issue objection withdrawn

YOUNGSTOWN – Objectors to a Youngstown charter amendment that would ban hydraulic fracturing and other oil and gas-related activities inside city limits withdrew their protest to the Mahoning County Board of Elections.

The elections board was set to hear the protest at its 5 p.m. meeting Friday. Instead, the board certified the issue to the ballot.

Concern over ”conflicts of interest” among members of the bi-partisan elections board played a role in the decision, according to a late Friday afternoon press release from the Regional Chamber, part of the amendment opposition group the Mahoning Valley Coalition for Job Growth and Investment.

Tony Paglia, Regional Chamber vice president of government and media affairs, who helped coordinate the group’s protest effort, said it believed the elections board had the ”ability and duty” to prevent what he called a ”misleading, poorly constructed and unenforceable” charter amendment from appearing on the ballot, but proceeding with the protest ”would needlessly cloud this issue with concerns over board of elections conflicts of interests and board member recusals.”

Susie Beiersdorfer, one of the leaders of FrackFree Mahoning Valley, which brought the charter change proposal, did not return a call seeking comment.

Elections board Chairman Republican Mark Munroe said board members David Betras, a Democrat, and Tracey Winbush, a Republican, were members of the coalition, but were not involved in bringing the objection to the board.

Betras, who abstained from the ballot certification vote, planned to recuse himself from the protest vote, but Winbush was not, Munroe said.

”I had every confidence that had the hearing gone forward, both Tracy and Betras would have put their personal feelings aside,” Munroe said. ”The hearing was not about the merits of the fracking issue, whether it was good or bad for Youngstown, it was really a technical hearing, whether the petitions were properly drawn, whether they complied with state law.”

Athens attorney Robert R. Rittenhouse of Lavelle and Associates filed the objection on behalf of Youngstown residents George Popovich, Tom Loney, Rosemary Miller, Robert Ogden and George Cintron.

Rittenhouse said Thursday the objection was based on three factors: it does not create legal binding authority, it attempts to administer existing law and Youngstown does not have the authority to control the production or distribution of oil and natural gas or transportation of the chemicals used in production.

The firm led a successful effort in August on a similar challenge to an anti-fracking initiative in Athens County. The elections board there agreed the proposal should not be on the ballot and did not certify it for the November election, according to The Athens News.

Political and business leaders who formed the coalition opposed to the amendment say it would hurt existing well owners and sends the wrong message to companies in the drilling industry that want to do business here.

Supporters of the bill of rights say it would ensure citizens’ rights to safe drinking water, clean air and land and to local self-governance. There’s also concern over the effects drilling may have on the environment in the city.

The Coalition for Job Growth and Investment helped defeat a similar Youngstown charter amendment in May. The amendment lost, 43 percent for and 57 percent against.

Paglia said in the release the group is confident voters will again reject the proposal.