The referendum is back on the ballot for City of Warren voters.
On Monday morning, the Warren County Board of Elections reversed its previous decision to deny the West Side Alliance's proposed referendum to amend the city's charter and ban the treatment of Marcellus Shale frackwater. It would also ban natural gas extraction within the city and prohibit the storage, deposit or transport of "produced water," "frackwater," brine of other materials, chemicals or byproducts within Warren.
County Solicitor Barry Klenowski said he was not present and able to provide counsel to the board during its Sept. 6 meeting, when members denied the proposed ballot question and plain English statement that had been submitted by the West Side Alliance.
Klenowski said the board's initial response "...seemed to contradict the applicable law in this area, so I wanted a chance to have another public meeting to hear any additional comments and then to speak with my clients in executive session."
After an executive session, Warren County Board of Elections member Dan Glotz said it is the role and responsibility of the board to examine the petitions for meeting the minimum number of signatures obtained to be placed on the ballot, which it did by receiving more than 272 votes; to review the plain English statement for adequately defining the intention and points identified within the petition; and to examine a proposed ballot question for limitations such as maximum word count.
Glotz said the plain English statement submitted by the West Side Alliance "in our opinion it does not adequately cover all the points that are identified in that petition."
Board of Elections member John Gerardi then made a motion that the board would draft a plain English statement and ballot question within the maximum 75 words within 48 hours.
The motion was seconded by Glotz.
The proposed ballot question submitted by the West Side Alliance was intended to be used as a tool for the board to use, Klenowski said.
"Ultimately, it's the board that's required to draft the question, not the petitioner or any other authority," he said.
City Solicitor Andrea Stapleford and attorney John Araynos, who was representing Waste Treatment Corporation, reiterated their stance against the validity of the proposed amendment offered by the West Side Alliance during the public comment section of Monday's meeting.
"The city's position is that this is an illegal question because it is contrary to the Home Rule Charter law and the Optional Plan law. It would be requiring the city to take action which is contrary to the Oil and Gas Act and the municipality's planning code, which the city cannot do," Stapleford said.
Kevin Moody, general counsel for the Pennsylvania Independent Oil and Gas Association, said, "PIOGA is very interested in this matter and certainly will be watching what happens here."
"Apart from the political considerations guiding this decision, even if the amendment is adopted, actions such as this have been declared to be unlawful by state and federal courts," he said. "The voters should know that, even if this gets on the ballot and is approved."
Klenowski said everything he has researched has shown the role of the board of elections is not to examine the contents of the petition or its legality, but rather to take a minimal role "as gatekeeper" determining the petitions have been circulated properly and turned in on time.
"So this isn't a question of the board determining whether the content of the petition is legal, illegal, ridiculous, legitimate; it's just a question whether the board has met its statutory requirements under the law," Klenowski said.
Ben Price of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund said the lawsuit filed by the West Side Alliance will be withdrawn. "It's a moot point since the board of elections has seen their error and corrected it."
Price said the CELDF may want to review the wording for accuracy, but he fully expects the wording to be unbiased and accurate.
"We're all happy and the West Side Alliance is pleased the board of election decided to reverse a bad decision," he said. "We're looking forward to a vote in November."
The board of elections hopes to meet next week to discuss the plain English statement and ballot question.