Ohio treasurer receives OK to host town halls

Josh Mandel

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) – Ohio’s state treasurer has received permission to conduct telephone town halls using public money, in an attorney general’s opinion with broad ramifications for the state’s upcoming statewide elections.

Treasurer Josh Mandel requested an opinion in December on the citizen teleconferences from Attorney General Mike DeWine, a fellow Republican. Both are up for re-election in November.

The opinion DeWine issued Wednesday cleared Mandel to use taxpayer dollars to contract with a third-party firm specializing in organizing and conducting such calls – as long as their content avoids politics and sticks to state treasurer’s office business or any matter “of general interest to the citizens of Ohio.”

DeWine noted “such meetings cannot be used to promote your candidacy or another person’s candidacy for public office; urge passage of, or opposition to, any issue on an election ballot; or discuss partisan or electoral politics.”

The opinion said Mandel is free to target his audience for such conference calls as long as people not specifically invited to participate are given the chance to be part of the call.

Mandel is the first state officeholder in Ohio to ask to spend public money on such calls, though they’re popular with congressional representatives and other officeholders around the country.

Ohio State University law professor Dan Tokaji said the opinion effectively clears all Ohio’s statewide elected officials to conduct similar calls at taxpayer expense.

“As a practical matter, while that legal advice is certainly right, very serious concerns can arise about whether these are really intended to inform Ohio constituents about the operations of his office or if they’re campaign events,” he said.

Tokaji said promoting the accomplishments of one’s office is a key component of a candidate winning re-election, and the DeWine opinion creates a situation that blurs the line between politics and governing.

“It does raise the concern that people are going to be holding campaign events masquerading as informational meetings,” Tokaji said. “I think we all know that almost everything any public officeholder does who’s running for re-election is intended to advance his re-election effort.”

Mandel, who ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate in 2012, has faced criticism in the past for mixing politics and governing. He uses campaign-owned transportation – not a state vehicle – for official business, in an effort to save taxpayer money but which also leaves no public paper trail of his travels. He missed a straight year of meetings of a powerful board he chairs in his first year in office, sometimes to attend out-of-state fundraisers.

Mandel spokesman Chris Berry said the office has no immediate plans to hold any telephone town halls, but that it requested the opinion as part of exploring various communications options.

“Treasurer Mandel takes pride in being accessible to his constituents,” Berry said. “Our office is looking into hosting telephone town hall meetings because we believe in empowering citizens to question their public officials and hold them accountable.”

He declined to comment on why Mandel requested his opinion on Dec. 31, the eve of an election year, and not earlier in his administration.

DeWine’s opinion didn’t specifically address whether any Mandel town hall meetings would fall under Ohio’s public meetings laws nor whether the invitation lists generated by third-party companies would be public records.

DeWine’s office declined to comment beyond the written opinion.

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