A credible study last year ranked Ohio 40th among the states in the transparency, accountability, and ethics of its state and local governments. If that dismal rating embarrasses state lawmakers — and it should — they can start to improve it by adopting a bill that would tighten Ohio’s open-meetings law.
The survey, conducted by the nonpartisan Better Government Association, cited loopholes in the Ohio law. The statute says governments must give “reasonable” notice of a meeting, but doesn’t define that. Such official notices do not even have to include an agenda.
Government bodies need not allow citizens to record a meeting. There are exceptions for “special” meetings where business can get rushed through. A separate state law enacted last year makes it easier for local governments to cut deals with property developers in secret conclaves.
A bill sponsored by state Sen. Shannon Jones (R., Springboro) would start to reduce these deficiencies. The measure would make clear that meetings that include government officials’ “consideration or discussion of public business” must be open to citizens.
That might seem obvious, but Ohio government bodies routinely conduct public business privately by calling some meetings “informational” or “fact-finding” or “listening” sessions. The public votes that follow these meetings often do no more than ratify decisions made in secret, with no opportunity for citizen participation or monitoring.
The Senate bill would declare these meetings public. It would require governments to offer specific justifications — not just vague references to “personnel” or “business” or “legal” issues — for trying to close a meeting. Penalties for open-meetings violations, including reimbursement of lawyers’ fees to citizens who sue officials under Ohio “sunshine” law, would get tougher.
Current guidance from state officials to local governments on complying with the open-meetings law largely amounts to coaching them on ways to get away with as much as they can. Since court rulings and bureaucratic regulation aren’t getting the job done, legislation such as Senator Jones’ bill is essential.
The measure would help news media such as The Blade do their jobs better, but this is not merely a matter of special pleading. Rather, it is about enabling citizens to observe more closely what state and local governments are doing with their tax dollars.
Most state lawmakers seek re-election this year. Showing a commitment to greater government openness, as Senator Jones’ bill provides, would make a stronger case for voters to rehire these politicians.