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Published: Sunday, 5/16/2004

Blowin' smoke in Findlay

FINDLAY residents have a right to expect their local government to be open and accountable, not closed and paranoid about outside scrutiny. Yet the whole concept of public meetings and press coverage of such events seems to have escaped City Councilman David Cliffe, who decided last week to end a public hearing on a proposed smoking ban after news photographers refused to leave.

Mr. Cliffe's attitude that it was better to adjourn a public forum on a vital local issue than permit local news photographers to record its activity reflects a parochialism that has no place in open government.

Moreover, Mr. Cliffe is an attorney and ought to have a much clearer understanding of Ohio's Sunshine Law regarding open public meetings.

The people of Findlay, including an impressionable group of eighth graders, had come to city council chambers to listen and be heard about the wisdom of enacting a citywide smoking ban.

The youngsters, whose class had researched and polled area residents about various smoking ban proposals, were there to learn a valuable lesson in civic activism. They were allowed to present their findings suggesting majority support in Findlay for a limited smoking ban in the town's restaurants, and news photographers went about their job.

But then Mr. Cliffe, who is chairing the ad hoc committee studying the smoking issue, abruptly announced the public meeting was off limits to the newspaper and television photographers and asked them to go away. When they didn't, he called off the meeting, surprising some committee members and dozens of residents who had come to express their views.

Unfortunately, he tried to deflect blame from himself to the news photographers for disappointing the public. "It's a darn shame," said the Republican councilman, apparently referring to the insistence of news photographers that they exercise their First Amendment rights, "because now people don't get to voice their opinions."

Well, yes, but canceling the meeting before the public could speak was the overriding factor.

The councilman, who had been advised by the city law director that the city itself was under no legal obligation to videotape the hearing, somehow interpreted that to mean no media cameras. He also believed committee members were private citizens who should not have their faces publicized.

Really? Publicity-adverse citizens shouldn't be serving on a public committee studying a public health issue. And an elected public official who's uncomfortable with the glare of media lights may be better suited to other work.

In the meantime, after further consultation and clarification with the city's legal director, the councilman has agreed to allow news cameras into the smoking ban committee's next public session on May 25.

That's commendable, if a little tardy.



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