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Published: Thursday, 3/20/2014

Multicounty ditch panels to get rule relaxation

Video conferencing to save time, travel, money

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF

COLUMBUS — Largely obscure multicounty panels that meet to discuss shared ditches won unanimous approval Wednesday from state lawmakers to hold public meetings without all members physically present.

The bill is narrowly tailored to address only joint ditch commission meetings and routine decisions on ditches, but it is likely to be just the first effort to take advantage of new video and teleconferencing technology to save government time, gasoline, and taxpayer money.

Dennis Hetzel, executive director of the Ohio Newspaper Association, said his group approved the bill and hopes protections added to it will serve as a template when similar measures for other governmental entities arise.

“We worked with the commissioners and have signed off on the language,” he said. “We’ve used the bill to create a good set of rules for the road for the next time this comes up. There are unusual circumstances in which it makes sense for taxpayers and citizens to let these guys meet this way. These meetings are always routine, and the commissioners involved drive significant distances for a 15 to 20-minute meeting.”

He said language has been added to require good minutes be kept of the meetings and provide a location where people can go to hear and see what meeting participants experience.

“Another thing I like is a presumption for video conference, if available, instead of having to use that speaker-phone stuff,” Mr. Hetzel said.

The bill requires that all votes be made by roll call.

The House vote occurred during the annual observation of Sunshine Week commemorating open and transparent government. It was supported by Democrats who have otherwise been critical of what they argue have been efforts by the Republican majority and Gov. John Kasich to shield some government actions, such as with the state’s private nonprofit JobsOhio economic development corporation, from public view.

Senate Bill 155 now returns to the Senate, which unanimously supported a prior version of the bill last November. A Senate vote won’t come before next week.

The proposal has been around for several years in various iterations but had repeatedly stalled. Last year it added to the state’s two-year budget only to be removed before final passage.

“It will save time and taxpayer money, and it will provide greater public access to the meetings by using this local teleconference and videoconferencing technology,” said Rep. Tim Brown (R., Bowling Green), a former Wood County commissioner.

Sen. David Burke (R., Marysville) and Rep. Rex Damschroder (R., Fremont) have pushed the bill in their respective chambers at the urging of the Seneca County commissioners. Mr. Damschroder said current law surrounding this is unclear, leading to conflicting opinions from counties’ legal counsel.

Contact Jim Provance at: jprovance@theblade.com or 614-221-0496.



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