Kent’s ‘Community Bill of Rights’ fails to pass


Issue 21

Christina Bucciere

Issue 21 failed to pass, with 53.77 percent of voters voting ‘no,’ according to The Portage County Board of Elections.

Issue 21 is a proposed amendment to the Kent city charter that would have guaranteed Kent residents legal rights to local community self government, pure water, clean air, freedom from toxic trespasses and a sustainable energy future. 

The amendment is also called the “Community Bill of Rights,” and would have prevented fracking within city limits. 

Voters choose to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on the issue, and the race was close throughout the night, split almost in half, with ‘no’ votes holding the lead by about eight percentage points at all times. 

“I’m just glad it didn’t pass,” said Kent Law Director James Silver, a strong opponent of the issue. “That about sums it up. It’s the wrong forum. They should be arguing these on the state level. I still think it’s unconstitutional. It has the city doing things the city doesn’t have the power to do. I’m just glad the process is done for now.”

Perry Phillips, a founding member of the Kent Environmental Rights Group, said he vehemently disagrees with Silver’s opinion of the issue’s unconstitutionality. The proposed bill of rights was similar to legislation passed in other Ohio cities, he said.

“I think that the law director and his team successfully convinced enough people that somehow our legislation, which was very similar to the legislation passed in Broadview Heights and Mansfield where (their) law director helped to write theirs and to implement it, was different,” Phillips said. “We did not attempt to go out into uncharted territory into something that, according to Mr. Silver was poorly written, by people who have been involved in national campaigns all over the country writing similar legislation to protect communities from unwanted, toxic trespassing.” (Editor’s note: Phillips’ quote previously said “where no law director helped.”)

KERG is a grassroots organization in support of the bill of rights that formed in April 2014. The organization collected 2,509 petition signatures in order to legally propose the amendment.

The Kent City Council unanimously approved the Bill of Rights Aug. 20 to appear on the Nov. 4 ballot as Issue 21.

KERG members wrote the amendment with help from The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, a non-profit law firm that works with communities to establish community rights, according to its website. KERG members, mostly from Kent, wrote the bill of rights in response to building apprehension about the risks of fracking. 

Fracking is an oil-drilling process that allows for the extraction of trapped natural gas in shale using a mix of water and chemicals to “fracture” the rock. The chemically laced mix is then pumped back above ground and shipped to disposal wells. Some argue the process has negative effects on the environment, such as contaminating groundwater and increasing methane pollution.

The bill of rights has faced opposition from leaders in the community. In October, several city council members formed Citizens for Good Legislation that opposes the amendment. Silver formed the group to educate citizens about the “poorly written and overly broad law.” Other members of the group include Kent Mayor Jerry Fiala, Service Director Gene Roberts and five councilmen.

During the Sept. 3 council committee meeting, Silver presented his legal opinion of the law in a memo, in which he described some parts of the law as unconstitutional and unenforceable, as well as being too vague.

For example, Silver said in the memo that because the bill or rights calls for the right to clean air untainted by contaminants, this would mean Kent would “need to ban gas/oil powered automobiles, trucks, machinery, lawn mowers etc. from operating in Kent. They all produce substances known to cause harm to health.”

KERG members responded to such claims on their website, stating that “any suggestion that the Kent Bill of Rights’ prohibitions might be interpreted as applying to individuals is a misunderstanding. For example, those who have suggested that extracting “oil from our cars when doing an oil change”…are confusing enumerated rights with prohibited activities.”

 Before polls closed Tuesday, Phillips sent an email to KERG members and supporters about the way he felt media coverage of the issue was biased and what it would mean if the issue passed or failed.

”Even if we lose in Kent, we will have helped educate some of the population here that the ODNR [Ohio Department of Natural Resources] has all the power to site any oil and gas operation, no matter how dangerous, anywhere they please,” Phillips said. “Ohio has a “democracy problem,” and the push back we got from the … Kent law director was successful insofar as he was made the center and focus of almost all local media coverage here…If we win, it will certainly feel like an underdog victory against the media and local political leadership of Kent’s law director.” (Editor’s note: Phillips’ original quote referred to Silver as “the Republican Kent law director”; Silver is a registered Democrat.)

Phillips said he has no future plans to try to influence legislation or protest.

“You want to spend seven months of your life on an issue?,” Phillips said. “That’s a lot of time with other people spending a lot of their time trying to do something to protect our community from unwanted corporate activities that would make our community toxic if they were to take place, and yet we couldn’t get a fair shake in the media portraying our case for that, and that’s truly sad.”

Contact Christina Bucciere at [email protected].