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Toledo Votes Yes On Lake Erie Bill Of Rights

Days before the vote, members of a group called Toledoans for Safe Water mounted signs on a highway overpass to draw attention to the Lake Erie Bill of Rights ballot measure. [Adrian Ma / ideastream]
A highway overpass stretches from the left to the right of the picture. The sun is setting in the background. On the bridge, a dozen people are putting up letters that spell out the message "Vote Yes, Lake Erie Bill of Rights."

In a special election Tuesday, voters in Toledo said yes to a ballot measure that amends the city charter to include a Lake Erie Bill of Rights (LEBOR). With about 8.9 percent turnout of eligible voters, the ordinance was approved by just over 61 percent. 

According to the unofficial vote count from the Lucas County Board of Elections, over 16,200 ballots were cast.

The vote is a victory for Toledoans for Safe Water, a grassroots organization that, for months, collected signatures, campaigned, and fought in the Ohio Supreme Court to get the issue on Tuesday’s special election ballot. The group worked together with a  Pennsylvania nonprofit, the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), to draft the language for LEBOR.

“It's nice to know that democracy still works, and is alive and well in Toledo, Ohio,” said Julian Mack, an activist and volunteer with Toledoans for Safe Water. 

A screenshot from the Lucas County Board of Elections website showing the unofficial breakdown of votes on LEBOR. [Lucas County Board of Elections]

Among its various declarations, the Lake Erie Bill of Rights says that Toledoans have the right to sue any government or business entity that interferes with the right of “the Lake Erie Ecosystem to exist, flourish and naturally evolve.” Supporters say it will discourage activities that contribute phosphorus pollution to the lake, which in turn feed harmful algal blooms in the Summer. In August 2014, some 400,000 Toledo residents were advised not use their tap water for three days due to high concentrations of microcystins, toxins produced by the algal blooms.

The passage of LEBOR is also a win for the small but growing “rights of nature” movement, which aims to deter activities that pollute the environment by granting legal rights to ecosystems. 

“I think this whole movement has really been in response to the idea that mainstream environmental law has just been tinkering around the edges,” said Reed Elizabeth Loder, a professor at Vermont Law School’s Environmental Law Center. 

The proposal drew intense opposition from more than a dozen state business associations including the Affiliated Construction Trades Ohio-Foundation, the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, the Ohio Oil and Gas Association, the Ohio Chemistry and Technology Council, and the American Petroleum Institute. 

Organizations representing agricultural producers that also rallied against the measure include the Ohio Soybean Association, Ohio Cattlemen's Association, Ohio Pork Council, Ohio Dairy Producers Association, Ohio Corn & Wheat Growers Association, Ohio Poultry Association, and the Ohio Farm Bureau. 

“Obviously we're disappointed,” said Joe Cornely, a spokesman for the Ohio Farm Bureau, which has argued that LEBOR exposes agricultural operations—long known to be a major source of phosphorus runoff that feeds harmful algal blooms in Lake Erie—to potentially costly lawsuits. Farmers have already been adopting practices to reduce runoff, he said.

“You solve these issues with science and commitment by farmers and other interested parties.” Cornely said. “You don't really solve them at the ballot box.”

Despite voter approval, LEBOR almost didn’t make it on the ballot. Last August, the Lucas County Board of Elections denied the group’s request to place the measure on last November’s election ballot, according to The Toledo Blade. But supporters of LEBOR immediately filed suit against the Board in the Ohio Supreme Court

In December, the Board of Elections relented, grudgingly voting 3-0 in favor of allowing the measure on the ballot. According to The Blade, democratic Board member Joshua Hughes said he was pained to allow the ballot measure because it was “on its face unconstitutional and unenforceable.” 

The Ohio Supreme Court later rejected a request to overturn the BOE’s decision.

Last Friday, ideastream reached out to the City of Toledo Department of Law for comment on enforcement of the measure. They did not respond. 

Cornely would not say whether the Farm Bureau is planning a legal challenge, but advocates for the Lake Erie Bill of Rights say they’ll go to court to defend it if needed. Tish O’Dell, the Ohio organizer for the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, said that if the city is sued over LEBOR, CELDF will offer legal support.

“This is just the beginning,” said Mack, who hopes the Lake Erie Bill of Rights will set a precedent for other communities to follow. “We’re going to continue to fight.”