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Published: 7/12/2013 - Updated: 9 months ago

Putnam Co. board loses Sunshine court case

BY KELLY McLENDON
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Jeremy Price, who was recently awarded more than $40,000 by the Putnam County Board of Elections, stands on the steps of the Putnam County Courthouse. The Putnam County Board of Elections was found guilty of violating Ohio's Sunshine Laws. Jeremy Price, who was recently awarded more than $40,000 by the Putnam County Board of Elections, stands on the steps of the Putnam County Courthouse. The Putnam County Board of Elections was found guilty of violating Ohio's Sunshine Laws.
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OTTAWA, Ohio — A Fort Jennings, Ohio, man who sued the Putnam County Board of Elections, alleging it violated Ohio’s open records and meetings laws more than 100 times, has been awarded monetary damages.

Jeremy Price was awarded $5,000 in statutory damages and $31,399.74 in attorney fees from a ruling out of Putnam County Common Pleas Court.

He file suit in 2010, alleging that the board committed more than 100 violations against Ohio’s open records and open meetings laws, including failing to advertise notices for special meetings and violating the legal requirements for holding a meeting in executive session.

Common Pleas Judge Sumner E. Walters found only 17 of the 100 allegations had merit. The court determined that the Putnam County Board of Elections committed nine Ohio Sunshine Law violations from March 3, 2008, to Jan. 8, 2009.

The judge also found that eight violations of executive session meeting requirements were valid.

“The court determines that the violations of the notice provisions were egregious, repeated, and deprived the public of information,” the judgment entry said.

Mr. Price, who was represented in court by Toledo attorney R. Kevin Greenfield, said board members would repeatedly hold special meetings without posting them ahead of time, which is required under the laws.

“Even when it was brought to their attention that they couldn’t do that, they would do it anyway,” he said, adding that the board would often go into executive session without stating the reason for the closed-door meeting.

Shelley Burkhart, Putnam County Board of Elections deputy director, said she was not allowed to comment on the ruling and directed all comments to board chairman Greg Hermiller. Mr. Hermiller did not return numerous calls to his Ottawa, Ohio, law office.

Putnam County Commissioner Travis Jerwers said he previously felt that the board was setting itself up for lawsuits that might “come back to bite us,” he said.

“I can’t speak for the whole board,” Mr. Jerwers said. “It was just a process that I was afraid was going to materialize, and it did.”

Putnam County prosecutor Gary Lammers, who represented the board, did not return multiple calls requesting comment.

Mr. Price said he sent letters to the secretary of state’s office about the allegations but did not receive an adequate response.

Maggie O’Strowski, spokesman for Secretary of State Jon Husted’s office, said the office is still waiting out the legal process.

“We are aware of the case and take it very seriously. However, it’s premature to determine any action we may take because there’s still an opportunity for an appeal,” she said.

Dan Tierney, spokesman for the Ohio Attorney General’s Office, said while the office publishes an annual manual on Ohio’s Sunshine Laws, filings and dispositions of lawsuits that involve the Ohio Open Meetings Act and the Public Records Act are not reported to the attorney general’s office.

“As a result, our office cannot speak to the frequency of such damage awards,” Mr. Tierney said.

While he is glad the lawsuit has been decided, Mr. Price believes that the community will still see a lack of trust in the Putnam County Board of Elections.

“I hope it shows them how they’re supposed to do things correctly,” he said. “These violations deprived the public. They were doing this with a purpose.”

The Putnam County Board of Elections held a regular meeting session July 3, where they met with Mr. Lammers to discuss options concerning the lawsuit.

Mr. Jerwers said he was not present at the meeting, but was informed that the board does not intend to appeal.



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