Group Represented By Athens Law Firm Withdraws Protest Against Youngstown Anti-fracking Measure

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The Athens law firm that successfully convinced the Athens County Board of Elections to reject an anti-fracking ballot initiative for the November election was hoping to do the same in Youngstown on Friday. However, the group that filed a protest against the Youngstown anti-fracking amendment withdrew its objection just moments before it was to be heard by the Mahoning County Board of Elections.

On Aug. 15, Rusty Rittenhouse and John Lavelle, attorneys with Athens firm Lavelle and Associates, argued against an initiative the Athens Community Bill of Rights Committee had hoped to get on the city ballot in November. The initiative would have banned fracking and associated practices in the city of Athens and its jurisdiction. The elections board sustained the objection filed on behalf of seven Athens residents, thus preventing the measure to be put on the ballot.

Following the law firm’s success in Athens, Lavelle and Associates was hired by the Mahoning Valley Coalition for Job Growth and Investment in an attempt to derail a similar ballot issue in Youngstown. The proposed ballot measure would have amended the city’s charter and prohibit fracking in the city.

Not only were the same attorneys who defeated the Athens initiative hired to fight the Youngstown measure, but the attorney who represents the Athens Community Bill of Rights Committee, Sean Kelly of Cleveland, also represents the Youngstown Community Bill of Rights Committee.

A protest hearing was scheduled before the Mahoning County elections board on Friday, however just four minutes before the hearing was to begin, the group withdrew its protest, according to Youngstown newspaper The Vindicator.

The Vindicator reported that concerns regarding conflicts of interest among the Mahoning County elections board members played a factor in the withdrawal.

Two board members — vice chairman David Betras, who is also the head of the county’s Democratic Party, and Republican Tracey Winbush — are members of the Mahoning Valley Coalition for Job Growth and Investment. The group is largely organized by the Youngstown/Warren Chamber, according to The Vindicator.

Winbush and Betras have publicly urged voters to reject a similar anti-fracking amendment in May and for people not to sign petitions to get the proposal on the November ballot, The Vindicator reported. The May ballot issue in Youngstown was defeated with a 56 percent vote.

Tony Paglia, the chamber’s vice president of government and media affairs, told The Vindicator, “We strongly believe the board of elections has the ability and duty to prevent a misleading, poorly constructed and unenforceable charter amendment from going before the voters. However, moving forward with a protest would needlessly cloud this issue with concerns over board of elections conflicts of interests and board member recusals.”

On Friday, the Mahoning County elections board voted 3-0 to put the anti-fracking amendment on the November ballot. Betras abstained from the vote.