Why openness is important in meetings and officials




If a public body and its officials want citizens to trust them with their hard-earned tax dollars, the safety of their families and general health and well-being of the community, they have to be open.

People want to know how their money is being spent and why.

And they want — no, they deserve — to know who is spending that money and making the decisions that impact their families, homes and daily lives.

The State of Ohio has a set of laws in place called the Ohio Sunshine Laws that are intended to protect Ohioans’ right to know what is happening in their government.

Just this week, a small village in Logan County flaunted those laws.

Specifically, the Rushsylvania Village Council wanted to go into executive session to discuss which of two respectable village residents to appoint to a vacancy on council.

I, as a news reporter for the Bellefontaine Examiner and as an Ohioan who advocates for openness in government, objected to the executive session on the principle that it involved naming one of the people who make laws.

While the Ohio Sunshine Laws are a very valuable tool to protect Ohio citizens’ right to know, they are not perfect and are often subject to legal reviews. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of attorney general opinions and court decisions levied on the various issues involving open meetings and public records.

There is one area in particular that I have yet to see a clear and concise opinion on, however.

That is whether a public body has a right to enter into executive session to name a person to its own ranks. That is, can an elected official discuss in secret what would otherwise be decided by voters in an open election.

The law is clear that a public body cannot remove a fellow elected official from office in a secret meeting.

So, my belief in the spirit of the law is that they should not be installed in secrecy either.

Various lawyers have agreed or disagreed with my opinion on the matter, but I have yet to see case law clearly spelling it out.

The argument hinges on whether an elected official is an employee of the public agency. My opinion is that they are not employees but they are the public entity itself. 

So that leaves it up to lawyers to decide what will be done.

In the case at Rushsylvania, the village’s lawyer is new to the job and was not equipped with a ready answer. She asked for up to a week to look into the legal issue. Council begrudgingly granted that week reprieve.

The law does say, however, that executive sessions are only an option. Barring situations where federal law prohibits release of certain information, a public body is always allowed to discuss an issue in public, which is referred to as erring on the side of openness.

The nice thing about erring on the side of openness is that it can very rarely get a public body into trouble. An error on the side of secrecy, however, can warrant a $500 fine and other penalties.

The only reason the Rushsylvania Village Council had for going into executive session on who would be the next council member was to iron out how they were going to vote before they did so.

It was clear both candidates appeared qualified for the job, had submitted resumes for the position and had addressed council briefly. What council members wanted was a chance to gauge how the other members would vote and cast their own votes accordingly. And that smacks of everything the open meetings law is intended to guard against.

So after granting their lawyer a reprieve to look into the issue, council was facing a week in which they could have gone behind the back of the law and gauged each other’s opinions in one-on-one encounters — also a no-no in open government.

But the leaders of Rushsylvania didn’t even have the decency to do that.

Instead, they adjourned their meeting and nervously hovered about the table as I intentionally stalled for one or more them to leave. They continued to hover about their chairs. It was clear they wanted me — the only representative of the public at the meeting — to leave the room and leave them alone.

So, I did leave, but I intentionally left the door open on my way out. No sooner had I crossed the threshold of the room and the door slid shut. I didn’t even have to leave the foyer (for want of a better word) before the illegal meeting began. I pulled up a spot on a five-gallon bucket and listened as they proceeded to discuss the very thing they agreed not to.

It was appalling, to say the least ... a slap in the face to everything that open government is supposed to protect. They could have at least given their lawyer a week to make a recommendation.

Watching the elected officials filing out of the room was shameful — heads hung low when they realized the reporter sitting outside the whole time had caught them in the act.

If I were a vindictive person, I might request that a court impose a $500 fine on the Rushsylvania Village Council for violation of the open meetings law, but that serves no purpose other than to waste the hard-earned money of the Rushsylvania taxpayer whose interests I try to protect.

Instead, I’ll let this be a warning that the public does care what happens behind closed doors — even in small towns like Rushsylvania.

Reuben Mees is an Examiner staff writer and proponent of open government — especially at the local level. He can be reached at rjmees@examiner.org.