Commissioners fell short in instructing committee

It’s ironic that the prosecutor’s legal opinion last week pointed out that improper action taken by the Trumbull County Citizens Budget Review Committee — created to help the county save money — could end up costing taxpayers forfeiture funds and lawyer fees if someone were to sue for the group’s Sunshine Law violations.

Ultimately, though, it’s commissioners who failed to appropriately advise committee members on their role as a public entity.

Trumbull County Prosecutor Dennis Watkins last week issued his seven-page opinion, backed up with 12 pages of exhibits and examples, agreeing with the Tribune Chronicle’s position that the group is, indeed, a public body, and that executive sessions the members held to keep media out of the room were improper.

“It is my opinion the committee as created by the board of commissioners is a public body that is subject to the open meetings law. Moreover, it is unlikely that the claimed reason for entering into executive session is valid,” Watkins wrote. “If legal action were to be taken, the committee and / or Trumbull County may be required to pay a $500 forfeiture and attorneys fees.”

The committee has provided Trumbull commissioners 19 suggestions to bolster its budget, including a 0.5-percent sales tax increase, if 18 other conditions are sufficiently explored.

The committee went into executive session each of the three times a Tribune Chronicle reporter attended the nearly weekly meetings between Feb. 21 and May 30, and never when a reporter wasn’t present, according to meeting minutes provided by the committee.

We called one meeting in particular into question, in which the group had adjourned into executive session to debate a public record request the newspaper had made. They cited a public meeting exemption as “pending or imminent litigation.” (It’s worth noting the newspaper’s request for a draft of a letter discussed in a previous illegal closed-door meeting still has not been honored.)

Watkins’ opinion also used this executive session as an example, pointing out the prosecutor’s office is legal counsel for commissioners and all other county officers and boards, yet no one from his office was present for the meeting. In fact, the only attorney in the room was Jeff Goodman, who was a member of the group.

“Ohio law establishes that board members or employees who happen to be attorneys are not the ‘attorney for the public body,’ “ Watkins said, quoting earlier case law.

Sadly, since the Tribune Chronicle correctly pointed out these discussions about Trumbull County finances — all public taxpayer funds — should be done in public, it’s the newspaper that has been criticized publicly by Trumbull commissioners.

During last week’s regular commissioners meeting, commissioners praised the committee’s efforts and stated publicly their disappointment in “negative” comments that were raised in the newspaper.

What they failed to point out, however, was that it was the board of commissioners that appointed the group and fell short in advising them on the likelihood that they were a public body who needed to act as such.

Committee meeting minutes noted that all three commissioners attended the group’s first meeting on Feb. 21, in which Commissioners Frank Fuda, Dan Polivka and Mauro Cantalamessa outlined the group’s purpose, mission and goals, along with the commissioners’ expectations. Never did they explain the group’s role as a public body, according to the minutes.

Since the Tribune Chronicle raised the issue, some of the committee members also have lashed out at the newspaper, insisting they did nothing wrong, describing themselves as private citizens and even accusing the newspaper of spreading “fake news.”

We don’t deny the long hours members of the group have invested. But we stand by our position that the illegal private meetings and the group’s blatant attempt at secrecy raised suspicions and painted a shadow over their activities.

Some of the members of that group should have known better.

All of the commissioners do know better.