If even half of the signatures on petitions submitted to Crawford County commissioners Monday are valid, voters here will be the first in the state to decide a wind energy referendum this fall.
On May 5, commissioners passed a resolution blocking wind farm development in all unincorporated areas of the county, effectively barring construction of Honey Creek Wind, Apex Clean Energy’s planned 300-megawatt industrial wind farm.
But under the terms of Senate Bill 52, which became law in July, wind farm supporters had until Monday to submit petitions forcing a November referendum vote on the issue, which could overturn the commissioners’ action.
At a special commissioners meeting, Tyler Fehrman, acting as executive director of Honey Creek Action, submitted a thick stack of petitions he said had been signed by 2,604 people.
Matt Crall, county prosecutor, said previously the signatures of at least 1,182 registered voters – 8% of the 14,767 votes (including blank cards) cast in the most recent gubernatorial election – would be required.
Kim Rudd, director of the Crawford County Board of Elections, said Tuesday the figure is actually 1,181 – since the actual result is a fraction, the figure is rounded down, not up.
In an email Tuesday, Fehrman said Honey Creek Action’s elections attorney had argued 14,509 votes were cast for gubernatorial candidates, making the target 1,161. He used that figure when presenting the petitions Monday.
Ohio Revised Code states the figure is not less than 8% “of the total vote cast for all candidates for governor in that county.”
Commissioners were the first to sign petitions
On the top of Fehrman’s stack of papers was the page signed by all three of the commissioners at the beginning of the petition drive, Fehrman pointed out.
“While we do not agree with the decision that was made, I can honestly say we appreciate the three of you as elected officials who have been consistent and have been honest with the people in your community, which is why this one’s on top, because we feel you have been honest and open about where you stand,” Fehrman said. “We’re excited to see this get certified, put on the ballot. We’re excited to move toward a victory in November.”
“Our desire is for people to have a voice,” replied Doug Weisenauer, president of the board of commissioners. He voted against the resolution, saying he felt such a restriction violated land-owners’ rights.
Under the terms of Senate Bill 52, after receiving the petitions, commissioners must turn them over to the Crawford County Board of Elections to be verified, Weisenauer explained.
“So as of right now, they are in the possession of the commissioners and we will work with the board of elections to transition them over to their responsibility,” he said. “And any challenges to these petitions will have to be taken up with the board of elections and the prosecutor.”
Rudd and Leigh Gribble, the elections board’s deputy director, attended the meeting.
“Looks like you’ve got your work cut out for you to check all these,” Weisenauer said, looking at Rudd, who was seated next to him.
“Yeah,” she replied.
Fehrman: Petition drive began immediately
Fehrman said after commissioners passed the resolution restricting wind farm development on May 5, the petition effort began “immediately.”
Honey Creek Action is the political action committee that funded and organized the petition drive. Apex Clean Energy – for which Fehrman is the Ohio field manager – has contributed to the corporate-sponsored PAC, but was not directly involved in the petition drive, a company spokeswoman explained previously.
“We worked with our legal team to craft petition language that we filed with the board of elections, the commissioners’ office and actually the auditor’s office as well, just as an additional safeguard,” he said. “We brought in a team of some local folks as well as out-of-torn folks who are professionals, who do this well, who operate with integrity and honesty, who know the rules and the laws. They came in and in the last month, we have worked tirelessly to collect signatures and to talk with the folks in Crawford County. ”
People responded ‘incredibly well’
The stack of petitions – roughly 3 inches tall – included 105 part-petitions that had been circulated across the community over the last 30 days to put this issue on the ballot, he said.
“The exciting part of this for us is that again, while we were disappointed with the outcome of the resolution, folks in this community have responded incredibly well,” Fehrman said. “We have had conversations on porches, had conversations at ballgames, grocery stores, downtown Bucyrus on Friday night.
“The conversations have been great, they’ve been productive, they’ve been positive. And the message that we have pushed and will continue to push through November is that Honey Creek, Honey Creek Wind Farm, wind energy, is good for Crawford County. It’s good for the economy. It’s good for the environment. It’s good for private land owners, it’s good for schools and thus children. It’s good for infrastructure. It’s good for the tax base. It’s good for building a bright and prosperous future for the people of Crawford County. We genuinely believe that and at least 2,604 other folks besides myself believe that.”
After the meeting Fehrman said he has not yet calculated how many hours went into collecting the signatures.
“But I can tell you it’s a whole lot,” he said. “We had a phenomenal team that dedicated a lot of time, a lot of time to get out and talk with folks and make sure this happened.”
The team collecting signatures encountered some push-back from wind energy opponents, he acknowledged.
Members of Crawford Anti-Wind played a vocal role in encouraging commissioners to pass the resolution restricting wind farm development.
“We went into it expecting push back, given the way that the anti-wind group has acted over the last few months,” Fehrman said. “But truthfully, most of the push-back has been against me, personally, in a lot of ways. And that’s fine with me; I’m happy to be the target for that.
“The push-back has been mostly a lot of folks are just convinced that there’s some sort of manipulation that can take place, or that at one point they claimed it was illegal to have out-of-state petitioners – and none of it’s accurate. And so what we did was we followed the process, we followed the rules. We did it the legal way. And we’re excited about that.”
Fehrman said expects the push-back to continue into the fall – as he’s confident the petitions contain enough valid signatures to get the referendum on the fall ballot.
“Honestly, what comes next, the short answer is victory in November,” he said. “The lengthier answer is that we’re going to continue to be active in the community. We’re going to continue to educate citizens of Crawford County about wind energy and the benefits it brings.”
He said his organization plans a “full-fledged campaign” focusing on the positives of wind energy.
“We’re not going to play in the mud, regardless of what the other side does,” Fehrman said. “We’re going to drive hard and fast toward victory, focused on the benefits.”
Crawford County setting a precedent
Weisenauer observed that Crawford is setting a precedent in Ohio. Since Senate Bill 52 became law in July, it’s the first county to have reached this stage.
“We’re the first county to go down this road,” he said. “We’ll see how it goes.”
He said he believes there are many people in the community who favor renewable energy, but have been reluctant to speak out “because of the harassment and bullying that’s been taking place.”
All along, commissioners have wanted to see the issue on the November ballot, Weisenauer said.
“And the anti-wind group, they have yard signs that say, ‘No turbines without a vote,'” he said. “So even they requested it be on the ballot.”
He said he wants to see everybody vote in November – and between now and then, a peaceful campaign by both sides.
Efforts by Crawford Anti-Wind members to discourage people from signing the petitions were a surprise, he said.
“This is democracy,” Weisenauer said. “We all wanted the people to vote. And this is the process to get there. I think everyone should be happy that everyone will have an opportunity to vote.”
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