Hush ... hush.
That’s the sound coming from the Tri County Community Action offices last week.
It’s the same sound that has been coming from the office for several years and it’s the sound that has the agency at the brink of ceasing to exist as a local social service organization.
The situation, from what I have gathered in the news reporting process thus far, began as a result of secrecy and a lack of accountability in handling the agency’s money.
That escalated to the point that the independent Community Action Organization of Delaware, Madison and Union Counties was called in a year ago to take over Tri County’s weatherization program.
Instead of beginning an open public dialogue at that point, however, the agency and its board went on like it was business as usual. Eventually the state turned over operation of the utilities assistance program to DMU in November.
Still no public conversation.
Hush ... hush.
It was not until the board had reached the point of closing the widely popular Meals on Wheels program that the issue even came to the public’s attention.
And at that point all inquiries were being funneled through the board’s president Al Evans.
While Mr. Evans was available for comment and attempted to explain the situation as he understood it on the first day the news broke, he did not have all the specifics about the number of people and which programs were affected. He referred those questions to Rebecca Tumblin, who was appointed interim director in the wake of director Denise Birt being placed on unpaid administrative leave.
Ms. Tumblin, then, refused to answer questions or return phone calls about the situation, only worsening the matter.
It took a telephone call from DMU director Rochelle Twining, who was attending a conference in Washington, D.C., last week to openly admit that the Ohio Developmental Service Agency already had stripped Tri County of the bulk of its responsibilities. Finally, a voice of reason, but it was coming from outside the agency and its board.
Then there was a Thursday “public” meeting.
Instead of recognizing that secrecy has been at the root of the problem since the outset, Mr. Evans declared that despite the fact that Tri County at one point handled more than $5 million per year of public money, it was not a public entity subject to Ohio Open Meeting Laws.
It was a slap in the face to everything I understand about public meeting laws and I was wholly unprepared at the meeting to deal with that basic denial.
Upon research, however, Ohio case law based on a situation litigated in 1990 by The Blade newspaper of Toledo it is pretty clear — in my opinion — that the courts and current and past Ohio Attorneys General do consider community action organizations public bodies.
In acting on a hasty opinion by an attorney unfamiliar with the situation, the board may have opened itself to the very thing it was trying to protect itself from in excluding the public.
In assuming it was not a public body, the board did not enter into an executive session, but merely instructed the members of the public in attendance to leave. That error may make the minutes subject to full public disclosure.
Ohio’s Open Meeting Laws are created to protect the public’s interest. While the public’s right to know how its tax money is being spent is paramount, properly conducted executive sessions for legally permitted discussions do protect the public from potential economic liability in lawsuits or property transactions.
But, take note, the law is specific that executive sessions that exclude the public can only be entered into to discuss certain topics. Sweeping statements that the issues being discussed are of a “sensitive” legal nature as was used to justify closing Thursday’s meeting are not acceptable.
At every turn, the tendency to err on the side of secrecy has met with negative results.
But it’s a basic denial that the Tri County Community Action Agency is beholden to the taxpayers that has permeated the agency and its board for so long and has allowed this financial crisis to reach the point it has.
Pointing the finger at one person under whose direction the situation reached its current state is not the answer. Nor is hiding behind closed meetings to protect the public from a potential lawsuit the scapegoat may file.
It is time for the board to own up to the fact the crisis emerged under its watch and publicly admit how it came about.
It’s time to stop hushing and start having a real and open conversation about what caused this mess. Because not until the past fully comes to light can the Tri County board expect any public trust.
Reuben Mees is an Examiner staff writer and proponent of open government who has been reporting on last week’s developments regarding Tri County Community Action. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.