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Great Lake Gets Great Rights

Great Lake Gets Great Rights
February 27, 2019 James Proffitt
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Toledoans pass the Lake Erie Bill of Rights, granting legal standing for the waterway

TOLEDO – Voters approved the Lake Erie Bill of Rights in a landslide this week.

Some 61 percent of voters favored the measure with 39 percent voting against it, according to Lucas County Board of Elections unofficial results. Turnout totaled just 9 percent of registered voters in the special election, which also included a jail relocation issue.

The initiative took Toledoans for Safe Water about two years to get on the ballot and offers Lake Erie and its tributaries some so-called “Rights of Nature.” Under this rights, Toledo residents could bring legal action on behalf of the lake and its ecosystem. Lake Erie is the source of drinking water for millions of people in Canada and the United States.

Some voters said they were put off by radio ads aired by the Toledo Jobs and Growth Coalition, a group opposed to the measure and supported by a number of agriculture, construction trades and business groups.

“I heard the radio ads and I didn’t like them,” said Allen Ball, who voted with his wife MaryJo. “I kind of thought they were over-the-top. I didn’t even listen to their stuff.”

The couple voted “yes.”

“I’d like to be able to drink the water from Lake Erie,” Allen Ball said.

MaryJo Ball said she thought leaders should start thinking more about the lake. “They better start now. It could be a real crisis one day, then it will really be too late.”

As he was voting, Allen Ball predicted the Lake Erie Bill of Rights would pass. So did Kristina Nicholas, who also voted “yes,” even though she admitted she wasn’t familiar with the details of the measure, which amends the Toledo city ordinances.

“I don’t know as much as my daughter does, but I still voted yes,” Nicholas said. “She told me about the farmers and about trying to keep manure and waste out of the lake.”

In fact, she said, her daughter convinced Kristina’s husband, and other friends and family members to vote “yes,” too.

Toledoans for Safe Water organizer Markie Miller said young voters were key to the success of the issue.

“I think right out of the gate we had the absentee ballots in and they were 78 percent in our favor so we had a nice cushion to work with right away,” she said. “That was definitely a good number to see at the start.”

But Toledoans in their 20s and 30s seemed to be a prime group for promoting the issue and spreading the word.

“Because we’re also grass-roots and we don’t have a lot of funding, we really had to rely a lot on social media, and so that way I think we reached a lot of people that way, more so than getting out to places. We couldn’t really get out during the day because we all have to work,” Miller explained.

But it wasn’t just younger folks that helped the measure pass.

Retired Toledo Public Schools teacher Joan Curran ran into one of her former students at a polling location. And she didn’t need any encouragement on how to vote.

“We need clean water, and I don’t want the same problem we had last time,” she said. “And those radio ads didn’t sway me, either. I’m so sick and tired of all the negativity. Just give us the facts and quit playing the game.”

Curran said she’s ready to vote for any person or issue that’s honest.

Miller admitted she’s just a tiny bit surprised it passed.

“Only because we had such a challenge, from the very start, getting onto the ballot and to break through. We’ve watched other communities struggle just to get to the point we’re at now, and so what a struggle, what a blessing to have,” Miller said.

“While my role was just a fraction, it couldn’t have succeeded without the core group of 10 or 12 people that have been working on it for two years … plus the 40-plus volunteers that helped.”

Although she said they couldn’t afford broadcast advertising and multiple mailings that Toledo Jobs and Growth Coalition did, the group still made a difference.

“We were able to afford 10,000 mailers in total, for the entire city. But almost everyone in Toledo got four full-color, double-sided opposition flyers,” Miller said.

The winter weather of the short campaign also was something Miller will remember.

“There’s plenty of times we recall being sunburned and frozen from being outside, our feet were sore,” she said. “We put every possible bit of energy we could possibly could into this, sacrificed a lot of weekends, social gathering and talked to people as much as we could.”

Opponents have vowed to challenge the Lake Erie Bill of Rights in court.  Before the vote, legal experts predicted numerous challenges because of, in part, the vagueness and uniqueness of the measure.

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