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Columbus Voters To Decide On Murky, Multi-Million Dollar 'Green Energy' Initiative

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Carl Attard

Next week, Columbus voters will decide on a ballot measure that would take tens of millions of dollars from the general fund to promote what supporters say is green energy use in the city.

The measure's many critics point out the murky language of the ordinance leaves much in doubt as to where the money would go.

"This is one of the biggest scams in the city's history," said Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther of the ballot initiative, known as Issue 7.

The price tag for the measure: $87 million, roughly 10 percent of the city's general fund.

If it passes, Ginther said, the results would be devastating.

“Of our general fund, about 85% of it is people," said Ginther. "Our refuse collection workers, our police and firefighters, our public health workers. Can you imagine cutting public health in the midst of a global pandemic? So the threat is real.”

Not only would Issue 7 be devastating to city services, but Ginther also said it would derail the city's progress on green infrastructure, including a community aggregation measure voters adopted last year.

“We’re the largest community aggregation project outside of the state of California, we're going to be completely renewable by 2023, and carbon neutral by 2050, as a city," said Ginther.

It's not just city leaders speaking out against Issue 7.

Nolan Rutschilling is the director of climate programs for the Ohio Environmental Council Action Fund, one of the environmental groups opposed to the measure.

“The ballot language looks like it may be beneficial to Columbus's environment and its residents, but in reality, it will short circuit the city's ability to fight climate change by taking away $87 million from the city's general fund and giving it to a private corporation," said Rutschilling.

If approved, $57 million would go into the "Clean Energy Partnership Fund," with the stated purpose of funding an electricity subsidy program for Columbus residents.

According to the initiative petition, the remaining 30 million would fund "clean energy education and training" initiatives, as well as a minority business development program.

But Stephanie Hightower, president and CEO of the Columbus Urban League, isn't impressed.

“No one's come and talked to the Columbus Urban League. No one's come and talked to the NAACP. No one has come and talked to our small business or Black home business owners. And so for us, this is disrespectful," said Hightower.

Critics also say the language of the ordinance is too vague.

But members of ProEnergy Ohio LLC, the group advancing Issue 7, said there's nothing nefarious going on.

“I think that what people don't understand is that there is accountability here for the funding," said Connie Gaddell-Newton, a Columbus attorney representing the group.

"It's actually written in the ballot language that Columbus City Council is the delegated authority to manage the Energy Conservation and Efficiency Fund and the Clean Energy Education and Training Fund," she said.

A lengthy legal battle that went all the way to the Ohio Supreme Court put Issue 7 on the ballot.

Gaddell-Newton said that's when things got personal.

“As soon as we filed in the Supreme Court, about one week later, felony charges were brought in apparent retaliation against one of the supporters.”

That supporter, John Clarke, was indicted late last year on felony campaign finance charges.

“Now people in the city are continually spreading lies about the initiative, and particularly John Clarke, saying that he has a long criminal record and fraudulent shell companies that have been shut down by the state. None of that is true. They simply oppose the initiative, and they can't win on the substance of the issue," said Gaddell-Newton.

A judge recently delayed the start of Clarke's trial until early next year.

Campaign finance records show contributions to Opportunity City PAC, which is running ads opposing Issue 7, dwarfs the financial backing of the measure's supporters.

Matthew Rand is the Morning Edition host for 89.7 NPR News. Rand served as an interim producer during the pandemic for WOSU’s All Sides daily talk show.