David Cliffe's legal skills came in handy this week as the Findlay city councilman spent much of the time defending himself.
Mr. Cliffe, an attorney who practices domestic relations and civil law, serves as chairman of an ad hoc committee appointed by council to look at a possible smoking ban. On Tuesday night he came under fire when he demanded that news photographers leave a public forum on the smoking issues. The photographers refused to leave, and Mr. Cliffe adjourned the meeting before it started.
Experts in Ohio's Sunshine Law, which describes open meetings, say the gathering was a public forum from which the press cannot be excluded.
"I was by no means thrilled with what happened," Mr. Cliffe said yesterday. "In fact, it's very unfortunate what happened. I feel sorry for those folks who came to speak and didn't get to, but I did what I was under the impression was right."
Mr. Cliffe said he now understands that the media cannot be kept out of a meeting. Television and newspaper cameras will be allowed at the next hearing on the smoking issue May 25.
"If I knew then what I know now, we would've continued with the hearing," he said. "When I left Tuesday night, I was frustrated because I wanted to have the hearing. People were there, and we're trying to get the committee's issues resolved so it can move on to council."
The first-term councilman said he was acting on the advice of David Hackenberg, Findlay law director. He had asked Mr. Hackenberg at a prior city council meeting about cameras at the hearing after several of the 11 members of the ad hoc committee had complained about receiving strange and nasty e-mails. Knowing how difficult it can be to get members of the public to volunteer for committee work, he wanted to know
whether the meetings had to be videotaped.
While Mr. Hackenberg said he believed Mr. Cliffe was only referring to videotaping the meetings as a public record of the event, a transcript of the two men's conversation at the council meeting indicates Mr. Cliffe had the media in mind as well.
"... Aside from Jim Slough and me, the members of the ad hoc committee are private citizens," Mr. Cliffe said to the law director at the May 4 council meeting. "I really don't think it's necessarily fair to have them splattered over the news wires."
Mr. Hackenberg replied that in his opinion, he wouldn't videotape the hearings. He went on to say that the attorney general has said "that ad hoc committees are technically not even subject to the Sunshine Law. I wouldn't want to test that one myself, but then again I think you are being very open with your meetings, and I think that is as far as you need to go."
A misunderstanding? That's what Mr. Hackenberg said.
Mr. Cliffe put it another way: "Maybe he misinterpreted my question."
Mr. Cliffe, 37, said he's not an open meetings expert. Council members are not trained about the law when they take office, and the topic never came up while he was in law school at the University of Cincinnati.
He said he sought the law director's advice in the first place and will continue to do so in the future when he has a question regarding public records or meetings.
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