Boards must think first of public role

It was Nov. 20 when all three Trumbull County commissioners came together to meet with Trumbull County Central Court Judge Tom Campbell and some state legislators without bothering to announce the meeting or invite the public.

Being discussed was the possible merger of Central District Court in Cortland with Trumbull County Eastern District Court in Brookfield. That, of course, is a service utilized by thousands of residents in a significant portion of northern, central and eastern Trumbull County. These court facilities are funded with public money, and employees of both courts, including the judge, are paid with public dollars.

Unquestionably, the topic is of a public nature and, of course, the Trumbull County Board of Commissioners constitutes a public body required by Ohio law to notify the public of its meetings.

According to “Ohio Sunshine Laws: Open Government Resource Manual” distributed by Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, a meeting of a public body must meet three criteria in order to be considered public. It must include a majority of members or a quorum; it must be held for the purpose of discussing public business; and it must be pre-arranged. When a meeting is scheduled, Ohio law also requires the meeting be announced publicly. In this case, it was not.

So, when we heard about the meeting after-the-fact, we asked the commissioners why they didn’t notify the public. Each offered an explanation.

Commissioner Frank Fuda said he initially scheduled the meeting for only himself, the judge and three state legislators. Indeed, such a meeting would not include a quorum of commissioners and would not be considered a public meeting. He claims, when the other two commissioners showed up unexpectedly, it wasn’t his duty to tell them to leave.

Fellow commissioners Dan Polivka and Mauro Cantalamessa said when they learned of the meeting, they felt it was important to attend.

When asked, Cantalamessa responded that it didn’t occur to him that the public may not have been notified. Polivka called it an oversight.

If it’s true this meeting of the full board of commissioners was not “pre-arranged,” it’s possible commissioners may not have violated the letter of the law. However, certainly, the spirit of the law has been violated, and at the very least, this meeting was improper.

Indeed, the full board of commissioners gathered to discuss public business. As we see it, when all three commissioners arrived, they had two choices. First, two of the commissioners could have excused themselves and exited the room. It seems most logical that Polivka and Cantalamessa could have left, allowing Fuda to conduct the meeting as he’d originally planned.

Or they could have canceled the meeting and rescheduled it for another time — after a routine special meeting announcement had been issued.

Neither of these options occurred, and instead, the three proceeded with the improper meeting, kept secret from the public.

As we see it, whether or not the meeting was intentional is irrelevant. It is the duty of commissioners — and all public bodies — to be keenly aware and cognizant of the importance the public plays in all their decisions.

It never even occurred to them that this gathering might constitute an improper public meeting? That is cause enough to tell us there is a problem.