Keep fighting to shed light on government

We recently published several stories and opinion pieces dealing with attempts by local public bodies to keep their constituents in the dark.

Among those, we reported on a series of “round-robin” meetings involving individual members of Warren City Council and a private business hoping to gain licensing to operate a marijuana cultivation center here. The meetings, obvious attempts to circumvent Ohio sunshine laws, were followed by a council meeting where council unanimously supported the business plan in an “emergency” vote, thereby limiting response from any constituent wanting to debate the idea.

We also published multiple stories recently about a citizens committee appointed by Trumbull County Commissioners to review county spending. The group met at least three times in what has now been described by Trumbull County Prosecutor Dennis Watkins as improper closed-door meetings.

Still frustrated by the continuation of egregious violations of Ohio’s open government laws, I spent time reviewing recent Ohio Supreme Court action, including one 2016 item I found particularly interesting, the White v. King case involving the Olentangy, Ohio, Board of Education. It’s been described by the Ohio Coalition of Open Government as perhaps the Court’s “most important open-meetings law decision in years.” It was brought by school board member Adam White, who alleged violation of open meetings laws by other members of the board of education.

In the case, four of the five board members — upset with an editorial published in a local newspaper — decided to hold a strategy session via email to debate their response. I suspect the board members believed if they debated by electronic exchange, they could circumvent open meeting laws. They were wrong.

In its ruling, the Ohio Supreme Court said a public body cannot use email — or any other electronic exchange, including social media — to deliberate or decide a public matter outside the public eye.

According to the Court’s majority opinion, nothing in the plain language of Ohio law “expressly mandates that a ‘meeting’ occur face to face. To the contrary, it provides that any prearranged discussion can qualify as a meeting.” And it said that Ohio law prohibits “any private prearranged discussion of public business by a majority of the members of a public body regardless of whether the discussion occurs face to face, telephonically, by video conference, or electronically by e-mail, text, tweet, or other form of communication.”

I chuckled at the irony that, in its opinion, the Court cited case law from a lawsuit brought by the Cincinnati Post against its home city following serial, or round-robin, meetings held with individual members of council to circumvent open meeting laws. (Sound familiar?) In that case, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled: “the statute that exists to shed light on deliberations of public bodies cannot be interpreted in a manner which would result in the public being left in the dark, … Back to back meetings discussing the same issues of public business could be liberally construed as parts of the same meeting for purposes of (Ohio law).”

It’s frustrating to see public bodies’ continued attempts to omit from discussions the very people who elected them and who pay the bills. Government in America was created in such a way to ensure accountability. Yet, with the evolution of new technology, elected officials continue to explore new ways to break the law and slam the door on transparency and openness.

Trumbull County Prosecutor Dennis Watkins said it well, frequently urging elected officials to construe the law liberally toward openness.

While the public may find it difficult to understand the larger impact of sunshine law cases they may view as trivial, frankly, without close policing of such actions, we open the door to a very slippery slope heading toward closed government and a lack of public participation. These are the very things that make America great.