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Published: Friday, 1/5/2001

Township to be told closed meetings' cost

BY DALE EMcH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

A judge will determine in a hearing later this month how much violating open-meeting and public-records laws will cost Sylvania Township trustees.

Lucas County Common Pleas Judge James Jensen will conduct a hearing Jan. 25 to determine how much the township will have to pay for attorneys fees and court costs following his ruling last week that the laws were violated in 1998.

The judge fined the township $2,500 for five violations of Ohio's Open Meetings Act. Additionally, he granted a preliminary injunction that orders the trustees to comply with the act. He dismissed 26 other claims.

Trustees met yesterday for their regular meeting and went into executive session to discuss Judge Jensen's decision.

“We are not going to appeal the case,” said Trustee Dock Treece after the meeting. “We don't think it's worthwhile.”

Township attorneys didn't think it would be in their best interest, he said.

The order was the result of a lawsuit brought by three women against former Trustee Don Finnegan, Jr., Mr. Treece, and Trustee George Fanning.

Mr. Finnegan's tenure as a trustee was mired in controversy before Richard Moses defeated him in 1999.

Judge Jensen's order covers instances where the trustees apparently met privately outside open meetings to hire a lawyer and police chief, and locked the doors of the township hall during public meetings.

Judge Jensen wrote in his order that the doors to the township hall were locked during three meetings in May and June of 1998. He wrote that the trustees' claim that they were in executive session while the doors were locked during two May 21 meetings had no merit.

He said the public had a right to be in the meeting place before and after the trustees held executive sessions.

“Although defendants state that people were let in if the officer in attendance heard someone at the door, a violation occurs if the officer did not hear someone at the door who wished to attend the meeting,” Judge Jensen wrote.

Mr. Treece said the doors were locked because the township's office staff didn't want to leave the front doors open after hours while the trustees were in executive session. He said a police officer was letting people in if they knocked. He said the law may have been violated, but no harm was done.

“I wouldn't have taken it this far if I thought we were guilty,” Mr. Treece said earlier this week.

Linda Cook, an attorney representing the women who sued the township, said the order speaks to the necessity for public bodies to conduct their business in public.

“Our government has been set up so that meetings are open to the public,” said Ms. Cook, who ran unsuccessfully for trustee in 1999. “Those things were done so people understand how the law works. And if people have meetings behind closed doors, how do we know that they're doing things in compliance with the law?”

Sherry Specht, one of the people who sued the township, said the case took a long time, but the outcome was worth the wait.

“To know that the truth prevailed in just one count meant more than anything else in the world,'' she said.

Besides locking the doors, the trustees violated open-meetings laws when they hired attorney Wolfgang Drescher as township solicitor before officially appointing him Feb. 19, 1998, Judge Jensen said. Mr. Drescher billed the township about $8,400 for work done prior to being appointed. He later withdrew the bill, which the judge said made no difference.

“The inescapable conclusion is that the trustees took formal action outside of a public meeting, therefore the court finds that this count establishes an [Open Meetings Act] violation,” he wrote.

Mr. Treece said Mr. Drescher acted as an adviser to him when he first took office and that the judge improperly assumed the trustees met to hire the attorney before it was done publicly.

The judge also ruled the trustees must have met privately outside of an open meeting prior to officially hiring Sylvania Township police Chief Wayne Seely on March 18, 1998, because they notified another candidate the day before that he wouldn't be hired.

Mr. Treece said Judge Jensen should not have assumed the trustees met to decide to hire Chief Seely before it was done officially because there was no evidence that they had.

“We are just going to do what the judge says,” Mr. Fanning said. “I don't think I did anything wrong and the others can speak for themselves,” he said.

In addition to the open meetings violations, Judge Jensen said the trustees violated the public records law by taking too long to comply with requests for public records and for charging 25 cents per copy, which he said is above the cost to the township.

Blade staff writer Jason Williams contributed to this report.



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