Oct 31, 2021 - News

Exclusive: Issue 7 leader breaks silence, defends clean energy plan

Illustration of the recycle symbol made out of dollar bills

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The project manager for Columbus' Issue 7 admits the public has not gotten enough information about the ballot proposal to divert public funds to clean energy causes.

  • But John Clarke Jr. also says the campaign is legitimate and that city opposition is misleading, he tells Axios in an exclusive interview.

What he's saying: Clarke pushed back against vocal criticism toward Issue 7, saying voters are only hearing "one side of the story."

  • "You know, what if we're not a scam? What if actually what you read (on the ballot language) is actually what is going to happen?
  • "What if we're not stupid enough to pull a scam, an obvious scam, and end up in jail?"

The big picture: If passed, most funding would be controlled by Clarke and other petitioners who worked to get the initiative on the ballot and would have to be spent within one year.

  • The biggest chunk, $57 million, will be used to subsidize residents switching from fossil-fuel based energy providers to a cleaner source, Clarke says.
  • The group would also control $10 million for a minority business development fund.

Separately, Issue 7 would allocate $10 million each to a pair of funds meant to pay for residential energy efficiency projects and public education efforts.

  • The city would be in charge of those two programs, Clarke contends.

State of play: Clarke, an electrical engineer, has spent years organizing this type of ballot initiative effort at the state and city level.

  • After numerous failures — including a 2019 attempt that led to Clarke being indicted for alleged election falsification — his ProEnergy Ohio LLC succeeded this year in putting the issue before voters for the first time.
  • Columbus City Council initially rejected the ballot initiative, but a favorable Ohio Supreme Court ruling led to its placement on the General Election ballot.

Yes, but: The Issue 7 petitioners have stayed all but silent throughout 2021, with no advertising campaign and little public messaging in support of the initiative.

  • Clarke says their naivete explains the silence, not anything nefarious.
  • "We thought that policy would just win out on its own."
  • He does point voters to a pair of websites outlining Issue 7, though they are difficult to find using traditional online search methods.

Meanwhile, city opposition has been fierce.

  • Mayor Andrew Ginther told us Issue 7 is the "greatest scheme in city history."
  • He accuses its backers of wanting to steal taxpayer money and warns its passage would lead to significant cuts to public services.

The other side: Clarke views the concern over budget cuts as "valid" but amounts to a "false choice."

  • The city could afford Issue 7 by reorganizing the local budget to pay for it, he argues.
  • As for why no environmental group has come out in favor of the issue, Clarke blames a "turf battle" and says groups oppose it because "I'm not part of them."

What's next: Tuesday's election "could go either way," Clarke says.

  • His group is already planning a 2022 attempt in case voters reject Issue 7 this year.

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