Some Ohio public bodies try to stay in shadows

FILE: Local leaders attend training on Ohio's Sunshine Laws.
FILE: Local leaders attend training on Ohio's Sunshine Laws.

CINCINNATI (AP) – While Ohio law calls for government that is open to the public, shadowy decision-making has led to recent court battles and a legislative effort to shed more light.

So-called “Sunshine Laws,” highlighted across the nation this week, go back decades in promoting access to governments and their records. Ohio’s Open Meetings Act declares that public bodies should take actions in meetings that are open to the public. Some exceptions are allowed, such as for certain legal and personnel matters. But disputes about openness continue.

From small townships to the nation’s highest offices in Washington, officials often are looking for ways around being open to the public, said a Cincinnati attorney who’s a veteran of open meetings lawsuits.

“The nature of power is they want to do whatever they want to do in secretive sessions,” attorney Christopher Finney said.

He was involved in the lawsuit that resulted this month in a Warren County judge’s ruling ordering Clearcreek Township trustees to stop making decisions in gatherings outside of scheduled public meetings.  The Columbus Board of Education last month agreed in a settlement with The Columbus Dispatch newspaper to stop using broad claims of attorney-client privilege to hold private discussions about the city school district’s data-rigging scandal. The Cincinnati Enquirer, which successfully challenged a juvenile court judge last year for barring its reporters, also has tangled in recent years with the city’s mayor, council and school board and the University of Cincinnati over doing business out of public sight.

Public officials often counter that they are discussing sensitive issues or exchanging information to help them make decisions effectively and efficiently.

“A tremendous amount of business that should be done in public now is being done in secret in Ohio,” Dennis Hetzel, executive director of the Ohio Newspaper Association, wrote recently. “These ‘informational’ or ‘fact-finding’ meetings often are the most useful, important meetings a governmental body can hold. … By the time a board votes on something at a public meeting, it’s often too late for input.”

After the Warren County ruling, Clearcreek Township administrator Dennis Pickett pointed to the part of the judge’s opinion saying the trustees didn’t set out to violate the law. “The trustees legitimately wanted to know more information to be able to do their job to the best of their ability,” Pickett said.

However, Common Pleas Judge James L. Flannery found there was decision-making done that violated the law in some of the informal pre-meeting gatherings often held in Pickett’s office before the public township meetings. He wrote that discussing upcoming meeting agenda items in such sessions “invites the specter that decisions are being made in a back room.”

Some officials say rulings in other courts have blurred definitions of legal transparency in decision-making, giving public bodies more legal cover.

“That has eroded the meaning and the spirit of the law itself,” said state Sen. Shannon Jones, R-Springboro. “It should be liberally construed on behalf of the public’s right to know.”

She is pushing legislation meant to close up some loopholes. Among other things, her Ohio Senate bill would add requirements for public bodies claiming legal exceptions to discuss matters privately, such as providing more details on why a closed “executive session” is called for and disclosing who is present for the sessions. It also would make it easier for everyday people to recover their legal costs for challenging open meetings violations.

“In order for people to have trust in their government, things need to be done in public,” Jones said.

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