Public officials must know, live by sunshine laws

Openness and transparency always is guaranteed when it comes to public boards that deal with public funds. Every elected or appointed official carries a responsibility to know the law and enforce it. And if questions exist, I believe the bodies that conduct the business of its citizenry should err on the side of openness.

Frequent readers of this column know that I write often about openness of public bodies. I believe strongly in the responsibility of our elected and appointed officials to share the public body’s activities, discussions, plans and, of course, spending to the people to whom they report.

Media frequently is referred to as the fourth estate because of the role we often play in watchdogging these activities. The term, an acknowledgment of media influence and status among the greatest powers of a nation, is one I do not take lightly. Yet, while I believe this role of media is vital, I don’t believe that public bodies’ transparency begins and ends with the media. Certainly, other members of the public can and should make equal demands of openness from their public officials, and those public officials should respect and honor those demands.

That is not what happened when a citizen attempted to make a video recording of a heated discussion about spending by the Trumbull Transit Board. Niki Frenchko, a member of the Trumbull County Senior Levy Advisory Council, which provides funds to the Transit Board to transport Trumbull County’s senior citizens, attempted to video record the Jan. 19 meeting but was told by board Chairman Robert Faulkner to stop. He told Frenchko that she was not permitted to record and that she should know that.

He, however, was wrong, and Faulkner, who serves on multiple boards, including Warren City Schools Board of Education, should have known that.

Faulkner’s admonishment of Frenchko was joined by fellow Senior Levy Advisory Council member Mary Williams, who also was attending the Transit Board meeting. Williams accused Frenchko of trying to “secretly” record the meeting.

Frenchko responded that there was “nothing secret about it.”

I say it wouldn’t matter either way, so long as video taping of the public meeting was not interfering with the meeting or obstructing anyone’s participation — and it doesn’t appear that it was.

Williams also should know better. She serves on Lakeview Board of Education and is expected to file soon to run for Trumbull County commissioner.

Faulkner later defended his action by saying he sees audio recording as one thing, but some people don’t want their images circulating or knowledge of their attendance of the meeting to be out there.

However, Ohio’s Sunshine Law says that recording a public meeting, in fact, cannot be prohibited so long as certain stipulations are met. That includes ensuring that the recording process is “unobtrusive and does not interfere with the orderly conduct of the public meeting,” the Ohio Auditor’s Office told us.

As I see it, people serving in public positions should expect anything they say during a public meeting to be, well, public. It doesn’t matter if there are hundreds of people in attendance or no media or public in the room. In this age of instantaneous broadcasting made possible by the video cameras on cellphones in virtually everyone’s pockets, public officials should just know the possibility exists.

And let’s not forget past U.S. Supreme Court rulings on Fourth Amendment challenges that have unequivocally established no legitimate expectation of privacy ever exists in a public place.

When we reported this story last week, a reader commenting on our online post at summed up the scenario very well: “People in public office should know that with the responsibility of a public official comes the demand of watching every word one says. If you have nothing to hide, there is no problem.”