Officials must learn, follow sunshine laws

It is incumbent on all elected officials, local and statewide, to be educated and fully understand the ins and outs of Ohio sunshine laws.

Instead, though, we are seeing more examples that this is increasingly further from reality.

Take, for example, a special Newton Falls Council meeting called March 29. It is clear now the meeting was being called for the intended purpose of adjourning into executive session to consider ending the village’s contract with its law director, Joseph Fritz.

But the special meeting notice sent to the media and notifying the public of the purpose instead referred only vaguely to the topic as “personnel.” That falls short of Ohio law, and the Newton Falls village charter requiring specific reasons be listed on special meeting notices.

The incident led to Councilman John Baryak, who, it appears, was unaware of the intricacies of open meeting laws, to request a legal explanation of why he was not permitted to adjourn to executive session. In what can only be described as an awkward chain of events, Fritz — whose future with the village is in question — responded by issuing a lengthy written report outlining the open meeting section of the Newton Falls village charter, Ohio Revised Code’s open meeting laws and the Ohio Attorney General’s 2019 Sunshine Law Manual layman’s interpretation of the law.

The special meeting then was rescheduled as an “emergency meeting,” this time utilizing a publicized meeting notice that met open meeting law requirements.

That Newton Falls Council emergency meeting had been set for Wednesday, but suddenly was canceled without explanation just hours before the meeting was to begin.

The meeting has not been rescheduled again.

In an unrelated Sunshine Law incident, it was only two weeks earlier when we wrote in this space about an email sent by Robert Faulkner, chairman of the Trumbull County Transit Board, to his fellow board members that also was a clear Sunshine Law violation.

In the email, Faulkner offered in great detail his opinion about a particular board discussion and sought the input from his fellow board members as well. The attempted exchange out of the public eye was a clear violation of open meeting laws.

Board member Marlene Rhodes responded appropriately to Faulkner’s unsolicited email, saying: “It is inappropriate for any of us to comment on this memo,” then noted “Sunshine Law violation” in parenthesis.

Even then, Faulkner responded with yet another email disputing Rhodes’ assessment.

But he was wrong. A 2016 Ohio Supreme Court case law clearly states that discussion of public business in any format — in person or via telephone, social media posts or email — violates Ohio Revised Code.

These two examples demonstrating public officials’ unawareness of the laws that govern their public duties are disappointing. It should make us all wonder if this ignorance of the law is commonplace among all our public officials.

Shame on both of these public officials — either for their ignorance or, if they were aware of the law, then for choosing to ignore it.

Indeed, it is every public official’s responsibility to become educated and to understand the laws that govern their duties and the activities of all public bodies.