Ohio's open-meetings and records — sometimes called “sunshine” — laws are under attack by state lawmakers, municipal officials, and even some courts.
A last-minute amendment to the new state budget, for example, allows local officials to discuss in secret sweeping matters relating to economic development. Exemptions for closing a public record have grown from one to 30, with more pending in the General Assembly.
Without public scrutiny, local officials can engage in all kinds of mischief, including misusing tax funds to grant special favors. The erosion of Ohio’s sunshine laws should concern all citizens.
Open meetings and records laws were not created to protect newspapers or other media. As arteries of an open society, they protect the public by giving taxpayers the right to know how their government works and spends their money.
Given recent setbacks that have eroded the spirit of Ohio’s open-meetings law, it’s encouraging that the General Assembly is considering legislation, introduced by state Sen. Shannon Jones (R., Springboro), that would provide more-transparent government.
The bill would require public officials to take formal action and conduct all discussion of public business in open meetings only, unless the subject matter is exempted by law. It expands the definition of meetings to include any assembly or gathering of a majority of the members of a public body who are discussing public business, including reports, recommendations, comments, and advice.
The bill also would require more details to be included in motions that must be approved before a closed session. Such sessions may be held to take up personnel matters, property acquisition, or pending lawsuits.
As things stand, it’s too easy for public bodies to be vague and evasive about why they go into closed meetings. Senator Jones’ bill also expands the fees and expenses that may be recovered for violations, giving the law some teeth.
These changes would close gaps in Ohio’s open-meeting law that appear to permit closed meetings when public officials are not actually deliberating but simply gathering information.
A case in point is southwest Ohio’s Clearcreek Township in Warren County, where trustees have met informally without notice before scheduled meetings in the township administrator’s office to talk about agenda items and prepare for business done at official meetings. The line between preparation and deliberation in these pre-meeting meetings is too tenuous; from the standpoint of the public interest, it is meaningless.
Ms. Jones’ plan would end such abuses by explicitly stating that official meetings include such gatherings of public officials engaged in information gathering and other discussions.
Public officials who find it inconvenient to operate under public scrutiny need to be reminded whom they work for, and whose money they’re spending. All Ohioans will pay a price if the state’s open-meetings and records laws continue to be eviscerated. Senator Jones’ bill is a good antidote to a contagious and spreading penchant for secrecy.