Cleveland Plain Dealer. September 13, 2023.
Editorial: Disputed public comments urging fracking under Ohio parks should lead to probes, reforms - and prosecution, if merited
The First Amendment rightly covers all sorts of speech -- including, in today's world, the deluge of carbon-copy "comments" public officials, politicians and regulatory bodies are used to getting, thanks to the many well-oiled public relations, advocacy and lobbying firms that specialize in such campaigns and solicit such responses. But the complaints from dozens of Ohioans who told cleveland.com's Jake Zuckerman that they had no knowledge of -- nor agreement with -- the pro-fracking comments recently submitted in their names to the Ohio Oil & Gas Land Management Commission must, and are, leading to questions.
Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost rightly responded quickly to Zuckerman's story, saying Monday he'd ordered subpoenas into the matter, seeking to probe how the comments originated. Yost noted that, even if no crime can be found to have been committed, the situation reveals other weaknesses, if people's actual beliefs are being mischaracterized, in effect violating their personal identity rights and degrading the purpose of public comments open to all.
“Whether this is a criminal act or not is less the point than, this can’t be good for participatory democracy,” Yost said, as quoted by Zuckerman. “This can’t be the way things work. Because then everything would be an illusion.”
The oil and gas commission is currently deliberating whether to lease land for horizontal fracturing, or fracking -- a process using a high-pressure slurry of sand, water and chemicals to drill horizontally through rocks to get at high-quality petroleum products -- beneath such iconic parks as Salt Fork State Park near Cambridge, Ohio’s largest and one of its most scenic and historic parks.
Also under review for approved fracking leases are Wolf Run State Park, Zepernick Wildlife Area, and Valley Run Wildlife Area, all also in eastern Ohio, Zuckerman reports.
One signatory of a July 5 letter favoring the fracking was Briella Keep, a 9-year-old girl from Kinsman, Ohio, in Trumbull County. She lives more than 130 miles from Salt Fork. She told Zuckerman she had no idea how her name, her mother’s phone number and their address ended up on the email letter submitted at 10:10:45 a.m. And not just Briella was upset - her mother was, too.
That the letter was part of a campaign was evident by the deluge of identical letters submitted to the commission at about the same time -- more than 150 in the 15 seconds before Briella’s letter landed.
Zuckerman reports that more than 1,000 of these letters trace to the Consumer Energy Alliance, a dark-money group formed in 2006 that advocates for oil and gas development. Zuckerman reported that the Houston, Texas-based nonprofit "has previously been accused of using citizens' names on government petitions and public comments without their permission in Wisconsin in 2014, in Ohio in 2016, and in South Carolina in 2018."
Another signatory of the Salt Fork letters, who is legally blind, told Zuckerman she remembered the letter being read to her over the phone but not authorizing her signature to be used on it.
Consumer Energy Alliance spokesman Bryson Hull explained to Zuckerman, as Zuckerman paraphrased it, that “no form of digital mass advocacy is perfect, but (that) the alliance maintains a ‘digital trail’ that tracks the devices and locations of people whose names appear on CEA’s letters. The alliance cross checks names, IP addresses, user locations, and other data points to determine within ‘a reasonable degree of certainty’ that people are who they say they are.”
Hull acknowledged that the sight-impaired woman might be right in asserting she didn’t approve her signature on the letter, but that there still could be “a reasonable degree of certainty” based on other evidence the nonprofit uses, like IP addresses, that it came from her.
Gov. Mike DeWine suggested that taking down the disputed letters was likely about all that could be done. But it’s important for public confidence in this process that the state and its oil and gas commission do more than just the minimum. That includes new authentication procedures, including the new “public comments portal where people can directly submit their comments to the website with additional authentication tools” that the commission has said it is creating.
New procedures should also include notification to all commenters that comments have been received in their names. In the meantime, concerned Ohioans can search for their names on the commission's two public-comment databases at ohiodnr.gov/business-and-industry/municipalities-and-public-entities/commissions-and-councils/oil-gas-land-management-commission.
Toledo Blade. September 16, 2023.
Editorial: Political power failure
Ohio’s redistricting process has become an embarrassment to the state. State legislative lines three times ruled unconstitutional but used anyway in 2022 under federal court order are in the process of being revised again.
The Ohio Redistricting Commission, the seven-member body comprised of the governor, auditor, secretary of state, and four legislators failed on its first task of appointing the Republican co-chair of the commission ( "Latest Ohio remap attempt faces delay," Thursday ).
The GOP co-chairman on the redistricting commission is appointed by the House speaker and the Senate president.
The House had the co-chair position in the last iteration of the commission; the Senate wants that position now.
The problem is Senate President Matt Huffman (R., Lima) is term limited and intends to run for a House seat and then make a bid to be speaker.
Current House Speaker Jason Stephens, (R., Kitts Hill) wants to keep that job and fears a Senate co-chair will be in position to steer House district boundaries to aid Mr. Huffman.
It’s likely a baseless worry as there is no incentive for Gov. Mike DeWine, Auditor of State Keith Faber, and Secretary of State Frank LaRose to let the Ohio Redistricting Commission become the high visibility site of Republican dysfunction.
Of the five Republican members on the redistricting commission, only the Senate appointee has any motive to favor districts drawn to create an advantage for Mr. Huffman in a battle for the speaker’s gavel.
This tawdry dance over control of the redistricting commission reveals its true purpose — to allocate as much political power as possible to the people in control of the maps.
This display is so revealing that a cynic might suggest it should be reported as an in-kind contribution for the expected 2024 campaign for a ballot issue to create a citizen-run redistricting process.
That effort led by former Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor is in the initial stage of an effort to qualify for the ballot in 2024.
Attorney General Dave Yost has rejected the summary of the constitutional amendment and the organization led by Ms. O’Connor, Citizens Not Politicians, must revise its description of the ballot language before it can circulate petitions.
The inability of the Ohio Redistricting Commission to form itself into an operational body is certainly good reason to sign the petition to put a citizen driven redistricting commission on the ballot when Citizens Not Politicians can begin circulating them.
Meanwhile, the Ohio Redistricting Commission would be wise to make only minor tweaks to the districts that were used in 2022.
No tweaking by this politically motivated cabal is going to make the district boundaries better.
And any action that makes them worse, or further highlights the political motivations clearly on display behind the scenes, will only further motivate voters to dispense entirely with the current map-drawing process.
Youngstown Vindicator. September 15, 2023.
Editorial: Schools aren’t alone in work to improve report cards
Ohio’s Department of Education has released this year’s School Report Cards, and as is apparent by the story and graphic being reported in today’s newspaper, results are underwhelming.
Still, the ODE points out, “Report Cards are designed to give parents, communities, educators and policymakers information about the performance of districts and schools — to celebrate achievement and success and identify areas for improvement.” In other words, they are a tool that should help us do better for our kids.
Locally, some districts could be doing a little better, though the language used by the state is telling.
For example, Youngstown City Schools received a low overall score of 2.5 stars out of 5, which the state department of education says means “needs support to meet state standards.”
Sadly, students in Youngstown haven’t started working on improving that score yet this year because their teachers remain on strike, unable to reach an agreement with the board of education, weeks after their counterparts in other districts headed back to school.
There was a bright spot for Youngstown City Schools, however, as the state gave it 4 out of 5 stars in the category of “gap closing,” which measures the reduction in educational gaps for students’ subgroups.
Campbell City Schools also received a 2.5 overall Achievement score.
Canfield School District achieved the highest Achievement grade locally, with 5 out of 5 stars.
Results for a few other school districts include 4.5 stars in achievement for Poland, South Range, Springfield, Western Reserve and Weathersfield.
Austintown, Boardman and West Branch each received Achievement scores of 4.
Parents and guardians can and should find specifics about their children’s school districts in the story and graphic in today’s paper. More information also is available here: https://reportcard.education.ohio.gov/
But, “report cards are only one part of the story about what is happening in schools and districts,” as the ODE points out.
As teachers take a look at these scores and figure out how to do better for our students, no doubt there will be concerns such as “How do we get lawmakers out of our way while we try to educate these kids?” “How are we supposed to focus on teaching when our schools are also caring for the physical and mental health of students, feeding them (sometimes clothing them), keeping them safe and offering a haven they might not have at home? How are we going to get the resources we need to teach when our communities’ economies are still in shambles?”
And, “How do we convince students to prioritize their educations when families and communities too often place no value on — in fact, in some cases have a negative attitude toward — getting an education?”
There is blame to spread far and wide on this problem.
Teachers and school systems will use the data to get to work toward greater improvement. As they do, we must ask ourselves: Are we ready to do our share?
Sandusky Register. September 16, 2023.
Editorial: Report cards just one tool
It’s that time of year again when the Ohio Department of Education releases the annual school report cards.
Like most Ohioans — and probably most Americans whose families endure these standardized tests and the results that come from them — we’re ambivalent about the entire structure, purpose and success of it.
Standardized testing started in earnest with the No Child Left Behind Act, a President George W. Bush-era federal regulation that tied federal funding to school testing. The intention was OK, to grade schools on an equal basis to ensure that everybody’s kids had equal opportunity to attend effective schools.
The only way to ensure that, lawmakers reasoned, was to give students the same tests. The results could be compared and schools that scored well could be recognized while schools that did poorly could be helped to improve their performance.
The test designers and the test subjects quickly learned that it’s just not that simple. School districts where wealthier families live did better, and districts with more diverse populations and less wealth were less successful taking the tests. That was just one lesson and overcoming the disparity — finding a grading curve that is both just and accurate — has proved elusive.
But all these years later, families are still looking for results from their schools and the standardized tests are the only empirical information there is, even if it is skewed in some areas. Perhaps it’s more like polling, the results you get represent a moment in time.
But the tests have been useful, or at least informative, in some manner. This year the results show that school districts in Erie, Huron, Ottawa and Sandusky counties have shown overall improvement. The troubling aspect of the performance indicators, however, show the absentee rate remains high, slightly down from what it was at the height of the pandemic, but still high.