Two recent local news stories offer compelling, if baffling, insight into the priorities of the media in and around Columbus. On August 22, the media descended on Ohio State University to learn the future of Urban Meyer following the football coach’s handling of a domestic abuse scandal involving one of his assistants.

Two days later, the same news outlets failed to appear at the Franklin County Board of Elections to learn the fate of a citizens’ initiative to protect Columbus, and thus Central Ohio, from the toxic and radioactive dangers of fracking. During this hearing, the board would decide whether to place on the ballot the Columbus Community Bill of Rights (CCBOR) proposal to “establish a community bill of rights for water, soil and air protection” from fracking operations and its waste. Strangely, the same media that comprehensively covered Meyer and his football program demonstrated little interest in an issue that affects the health of all Central Ohioans and their environment.

Any local media worth its salt knows about the Columbus Bill of Rights and therefore the importance of the August Board of Elections’ hearing to certify it. An all-volunteer effort, CCBOR took five years, three-campaigns, numerous city council meetings, precious few donations and a cumulative total of over 43,000 signatures to secure its passage on the ballot. Furthermore, CCBOR overcame newly-minted state and city codes to meet every revised requirement set forth by the Clerk of Courts, Columbus City Council, and the city attorney’s office. Its last hurdle was the Franklin County Board of Elections, the result of a 2016 state law that authorized Ohio boards of elections to act as judge-and-jury over otherwise officially vetted and approved citizen-led initiatives.

The media’s attention to these two news stories greatly influenced the proceedings of each event, both convened to announce critical decisions. Ohio State University officials publicized the time of its news conference and invited questions from those attending.

In contrast, the Board of Elections twice postponed its scheduled hearings on the CCBOR initiative (citing a challenge to it by a single Columbus citizen), and allowed for just one speaker, board member Brad Sinnott. Rolling out his opposition to the initiative, Sinnott spoke in a voice so low that the public could not hear him and, despite repeated requests, made no attempt to adjust his volume or use the nearby microphone.

Then, in an astonishing move bereft of testimonies from attending attorneys, open discussion among board members, or questions from the public, Sinnott called for a vote. Moments later, all four board officials voted to keep CCBOR off the ballot. Without the major media watching, an unelected, non-judicial quartet rejected the wishes of tens of thousands of local citizens who had sought, through the legal process, to protect their environment and denied Columbus’s 560,000 citizens the right to vote on the proposal.

Protests immediately erupted. Expecting at least a modicum of transparency and reasoned debate before the board voted, individuals who had witnessed the farcical proceedings began standing up to voice their objections.

“This is not democracy, but fascism,” several cried while others shouted, “the decision must be the people’s, not the BOE’s!” Someone piped in, “Where is Loretta Settelmeyer?” referring to the mystery woman who had challenged the initiative, yet had not once during the five years of the CCBOR campaign made herself or her concerns known.

Supporters voiced concerns about the safety of their natural resources and, noting the devastating example of Flint, Michigan’s contaminated water, the health of the city’s children. In unplanned unison, they chanted, “Not another Flint!” and “Let us vote!” Board members responded by closing the session and instructing the people to behave. At OSU’s event about Urban Meyer and Ohio State football, officials invited questions. At the Board of Elections hearing about local democracy, officials told The People to be quiet. 

The two events shared one remarkable similarity. The sanctioned speakers did not address the chief reason for the issue at hand. During the OSU news conference, no one mentioned Courtney Smith, the woman who endured years of domestic abuse despite her calls for help. Likewise, Brad Sinnott at the Board of Elections steered clear of mentioning the city’s water and the serious threats fracking waste poses to it.

As this comparison details, corporate-funded local media appear to care more about the future of Ohio State football than the health of Central Ohio’s people, environment and democratic processes. Perhaps when Columbus sustains a full-blown toxic and radioactive catastrophe, the local media will devote more coverage to local citizens and their rights to ban fracking than to Ohio State’s football championships. By then, of course, it will be too late. The damage will have been done.

Proponents of the Columbus Community Bill of Rights are contesting the Board of Elections decision in the Ohio Supreme Court. Confident that democracy will prevail – and under the banner “Not another Flint!” – the campaign to secure the Columbus Community Bill of Right’s proper place on the ballot and its victory in November marches onward.

Columbus Community Bill of Rights