Johnson County is four weeks away from deciding on a Community Bill of Rights

In a public forum held at the Vienna Library Monday evening, area residents said confusion remains over how to cast their ballot if they are against hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking.

“If you want to see fracking in Johnson County, then vote ‘No,’” Vienna resident Richard Craig said. “If you don’t want to see fracking here, then vote ‘Yes.’”

Craig was one of nearly 60 people in attendance Monday evening and was one of a handful of Johnson County residents who participated in gathering signatures for a ballot initiative, which reads:

“Shall the people’s right to local self-government be asserted by Johnson County to ban corporate fracking as a violation of their rights to health, safety, and a clean environment?”

Retired school teacher and Johnson County native Phyllis Oliver, of Cypress, introduces an evening of education and discussion on the “perils of fracking” Monday night at a public forum held at the Vienna Library. ~ Joe Rehana | Goreville Gazette
Retired school teacher and Johnson County native Phyllis Oliver, of Cypress, introduces an evening of education and discussion on the “perils of fracking” Monday night at a public forum held at the Vienna Library. ~ Joe Rehana | Goreville Gazette

The non-binding ballot initiative is largely symbolic in that it only provides a public-opinion poll to help guide Johnson County commissioners on the direction the residents here would like them to take on the issue of fracking. If the initiative passes, it would still be up to the commissioners to vote in favor of drafting a Community Bill of Rights, which is what fracking opponents are seeking.

“I will definitely use the vote on March 18, concerning hydraulic fracturing on how I proceed from that point forward,” Johnson County chairman Jeff Mears said in an email to the Goreville Gazette Monday evening. “I believe as a board we should act ASAP after we see the results from the ballot initiative.”

Mears said it would still require a majority vote between the commissioners to approve drafting the Community Bill of Rights, of which one commissioner is unlikely to ever approve because he is one of 192 residents in the county who already signed a lease with Woolsey Energy Corporation, the Wichita, Kan. oil and gas company responsible for those 192 contracts. Commissioner Mears said that the ballot initiative would provide the community a “true and accurate” count as to how the residents here feel about the hydraulic fracturing industry, but that he has concerns with the organization behind the initiative.

Ben Price, National Director of Community Organizing with the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) said its role in the ballot initiative is to assist county residents by advising them about the rights of the community and the right to local self-government and consent of the governed.

“The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund works with communities across the country who request our assistance in overcoming state-sponsored denial of rights by large corporations,” Price said in an email to the Goreville Gazette Tuesday morning. “Our mission is to help people establish sustainable communities by asserting local self-governing rights.”

And when it comes to the ballot initiative, CELDF maintains the issue is not just simply should fracking occur in Johnson County or not, but that the fundamental rights of citizens to say “no” to large corporations is also at stake. Mr. Price acknowledged that a legal battle could erupt should the commissioners enact a Bill of Rights that in effect bans hydraulic fracturing in the county, adding that it is the nature of large corporations to take advantage of such situations.

Price said elected officials are right to be concerned about county finances when facing legal threats from large corporations.

“But their concern is misdirected when they claim that it is the citizens’ request for a prohibition of fracking that is the source of the financial peril,” Price said. “Rather, it is the presumption that corporations have rights that the county cannot ‘violate’ in protecting the rights of the people.”

The confusion with the question on the ballot is likely due to the fact that it does not just ask should Johnson County ban fracking and instead asks if the people of Johnson County should enact a Community Bill of Rights that protects the right to local self-government, clean air and clean water by banning fracking, Natalie Long, an organizer with the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund and a Southern Illinois native said.

“This is a conversation that goes much deeper,” Long said at the meeting Monday night. “It goes into the protection of our rights as Southern Illinoisans.”

And while commissioner Mears echoed the concerns of community members facing ‘forced pooling,’ which is the ability of energy companies to drill on land not leased because it is surrounded by 51-percent or more who have, he said there is still a lot to learn about the industry both good and bad.

“I encourage everyone to please educate yourself with true facts about [CELDF] as well as ‘forced pooling’ and get involved no matter how you feel about this subject,” Mears said.

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