Voters won’t decide on distribution of about $2.6 million in Renewable Energy Credit profits after all.
A paperwork error caused the Lorain County Board of Elections to reject a proposed ballot initiative Aug. 18 that called for creating a Sustainable Reserve Program to fund energy conservation and renewable energy efforts.
Referendum committee members gathered 374 valid signatures — they needed 266 signatures to place it on the November ballot — but committee organizer Heather Adelman told board members she neglected to include a copy of the text and title of the referendum when she dropped off the signatures with Oberlin officials.
She had previously submitted the text and title to the city.
“It was purely my mistake and misunderstanding,” Adelman said, adding that signature collectors displayed the referendum’s title and text while collecting signatures. “I thought I just needed to take in the actual signature pages.”
Ohio law says “each part of any initiative petition shall contain a full and correct copy of the title and text of the proposed ordinance.”
Assistant county prosecutor Gerald Innes said the Ohio Supreme Court has sometimes approved referendums with minor mistakes in the initiative text, but cases involving missing texts have been “universally rejected.”
Nonetheless, attorney Todd Williams, who represents the referendum organizers, asked the board in an Aug. 14 letter to allow the referendum on the ballot. “The city was clearly aware of the text and title of the petition, having a copy on file, and forwarding it twice to this board, along with the signatures submitted by the committee,” he wrote.
Board member Thomas Smith said he believed Adelman’s error was an honest mistake but board members’ hands were tied. “We’re being told by the Supreme Court that strict compliance is necessary,” he told Adelman.
The proposal was in response to a June 20 decision by a divided city council to rebate $2.2 million through credits to customers beginning next year. The remainder goes to Oberlin Municipal Light & Power System’s sustainable reserve program, which promotes conservation and energy efficiency.
The program has been criticized for being overly complicated and underused. The credits are pollution offsets sold to out-of-state utilities by Oberlin Municipal Light and Power, allowing the utilities to comply with stricter environmental standards without actually reducing pollution.
Rebate proponents said the nonprofit system’s customers were entitled to refunds because the utility overcharged customers to buy renewable energy to meet Oberlin’s Climate Action Plan goals rather than purchasing coal.
Opponents noted 80 percent of the rebates will go to commercial customers with residential customers only averaging about $90 in annual rebates which will expire in a few years.
To encourage conservation and clean energy use, city council is establishing a “choice fund” that customers can deposit the rebates into.
However, referendum organizers say the credit profits were owned collectively by the community and $2.6 million for clean energy efforts would’ve had a major impact on Oberlin. They were frustrated over the complicated petition process and a technicality depriving voters from deciding how much money is spent.
“It’s almost like a Catch-22 for a community-based initiative,” said Elizabeth Meadows, a former councilwoman. “If you’re not given the right information, then the result is what happened today.”
Evan Goodenow can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @GoodenowNews on Twitter.