Portsmouth native Adam White may not make it into the history books, but maybe he should. Because of a case he recently took to the Ohio Supreme Court, it is now clear that a higher standard of transparency is required in all levels of Ohio government.
White was a member of the five-person Olentangy School Board and conducted his own investigation into possible financial irregularities in the district’s athletics department. White’s attorney, Phil Harmon said, as a result of White’s investigation, one of the athletic directors had to resign and reimburse the district for some money he had reportedly taken and another also had to reimburse the district for some money he had reportedly taken.
“The four other members of the board passed a resolution that said, basically, from now on any more communications from the board members had to go through the superintendent or the treasurer, and they’ll handle it from there,” Harmon told the Daily Times.
Things began to unravel when the Columbus Dispatch did an editorial criticizing that vote because, by law, a director of an organization has full authority to do what is necessary to fulfill his or her fiduciary duties to the organization and rules cannot say everything has to be controlled by any employee.
“The four board members were not happy with that editorial,” Harmon said. “An email was sent out to the other board members saying, ‘Let’s get together tomorrow and put together a response to this in the paper.’”
Harmon said what followed was a series of around 50 emails between board members, staff and others, deliberating on the response they were going to send to the Dispatch editorial department. They created the response and published it in the Dispatch.
Harmon said in a nutshell that four of the five members of the Olentangy School Board deliberated and decided a matter of public business in private.
It was at that point White hired Harmon and they filed a civil action alleging breach of the Sunshine Law because the four had deliberated in private without including White. In short, they had taken action involving public business in private.
Harmon said the case was dismissed in the Delaware County Common Pleas Court and again in the Fifth District Court of Appeals, neither of which surprised Harmon or White, who expected not to win in either of those courts because there are laws that say emails are not a part of the statute.
“In both cases, the courts ruled that deliberations by email did not constitute a meeting under the Ohio Meetings Statute,” Harmon said. “We appealed it to the Ohio Supreme Court and by that time we had amicus support from the Ohio Newspaper Association, Ohio Broadcasters Association, the League of Women Voters of Ohio and Common Cause Ohio.”
Each of those entities filed a brief in support of White’s position, stating the email deliberations are just as prohibited under the statute as face-to-face deliberations – discussing an issue and coming to a resolution.
The Supreme Court heard the case and ruled in White’s favor.
“I personally think this is a big big decision by the Ohio Supreme Court,” Harmon said. “Not just because of Adam’s case, but because of the implications to all other forms of government that use deliberative bodies.”
The decision affects every governing body in the state of Ohio.
“This sends a shot across a lot of different boughs,” Harmon said. “When they agreed to hear the case, we thought, oh oh, this is big because if they didn’t want to change the law they could have just affirmed the Fifth District and the case would have been gone and the existing law would have stayed the way it was, which was loophole, loophole, loophole,” Harmon said. “But the Supreme Court to their credit, God bless them, said, ‘we’re going to hear this case and we’re going to upgrade the law to the current day and we’re going to put our stamp down, saying we don’t want private deliberations on public business anymore.’”
White’s term on the Board ended in December (2015).
“That brought great relief from an anxiety standpoint,” White told the Times. “I spent four years and only had one or two meetings in which I was treated as an equal, after the first two meetings, they just wanted me to be quiet and go away. That’s what I put up with for four years. Every meeting was extremely tense. They were ready to pounce on me and try and attack me.”
Harmon said, just as important to him as the actual decision, was the vindication of Adam White, son of Dr. George and Sandra White of Portsmouth.
“This guy (White) was standing up for truth and transparency. He was a real advocate before I even knew him,” Harmon said. “I heard he was getting really maligned by the other board members to the point where he had to have security at a meeting one night because the threats were severe.
“They were leaning on him. He had be ostracized by the other four members and they were running the business on their own without him, and in certain cases, such as this one, behind closed doors. He took on that case and the possibility of being sanctioned for filing a frivilous action and things like that. That’s the kind of character Adam has that he was willing to basically risk it all to stand up for principle.”
Reach Frank Lewis at 740-353-3101, ext. 1928, or on Twitter @franklewis.