Officials need more focus on sunshine laws

Elected members of all public bodies must know and adhere to the parameters and guidelines of Ohio’s open meetings laws, including what constitutes a quorum and, therefore, requires advance public notice of the meeting under the Ohio Revised Code.

In cases of three-member boards, like the Trumbull County commissioners or township trustees, that can become a little more challenging because a gathering of just two of the three elected members to discuss public business is, indeed, a quorum and therefore a public meeting. But more challenging does not mean they get a free pass. It just means they need to try harder.

Trumbull commissioners must be especially aware of Ohio open-meetings laws, particularly considering that they conduct the business of their Trumbull County constituents on a daily basis in adjacent offices at the Trumbull County Administration Building – a building that is owned and funded by the taxpayers of Trumbull County.

Last month, Trumbull Commissioner Frank Fuda was among the speakers to address hundreds who gathered for the dedication of the new Trumbull County Samuel E. Lanza Veterans Resource Center in downtown Warren. In his speech, Fuda openly told the crowd, including members of the media, that after earlier attempts to relocate veteran services to an existing building had been defeated by a 2-1 Trumbull commissioners vote, he had continued to meet with then-commissioner Paul Heltzel, who is now deceased, and other elected leaders about the possibility of building a new center.

Certainly discussions about public business like building a new veterans resource center would generate great public interest. Such meetings attended by two of the three commissioners would – under Ohio law – be considered a public meeting, yet the Tribune Chronicle had never received notice of those meetings. As such, we sent a letter to Commissioner Fuda last month requesting the minutes from those meetings. The commissioner promptly replied with a letter indicating that these discussions were “informal” and therefore no minutes had been taken.

The suggestion that it is somehow OK for discussions of public business to take place by a quorum of a public body is not only alarming to us, it is simply wrong.

Small public bodies like the Trumbull County commissioners or even boards of township trustees must be even more cognizant of Ohio’s open-meetings laws than larger municipal bodies like Warren, Niles or Cortland city councils. That’s not to say that following the letter of Ohio sunshine laws is more important for one body than another.

editorial@tribtoday.com