By Frank Lewis
The Daily Times somewhat opened a can of worms in March when it questioned whether Portsmouth City Council was following Ohio’s Sunshine Laws bringing the topic of open meetings and transparency to the forefront.
At that time, Portsmouth City Solicitor John Haas told the Daily Times sometimes City Council listened to him when he advised them of their obligation under the Sunshine Laws and sometimes they didn’t.
Within days Haas had done his research on the subject.
“I did a request to the Attorney General’s office because public, elected officials are required to attend these Sunshine Law open meetings seminars every two years of their term or maybe it’s once per term,” Haas said. At that time, only Haas and First Ward Councilman Kevin W. Johnson had attended the seminars. Since then it has become an important focal point of attention by those in city public office and more members have attended.
“I attended the Sunshine Open Meetings in Cincinnati,” Portsmouth City Manager Derek Allen told City Council Monday night. “I know you can do it online but I decided I’d try to catch a (Cincinnati) Reds- (Detroit) Tigers game but it rained that night.”
Allen said action is being taken to make sure everyone understands their obligations under the Sunshine Laws.
“Every department head is currently completing that training and getting a certificate turned in,” Allen said. “My goal for next year would be for all office staff in addition to department heads would participate in that training.”
The questions that arose from the subject of Ohio’s Sunshine Laws was whether or not City Council and other governing bodies properly understood what they could and couldn’t go into executive session about.
According to Ohio Revised Code Section 121.22, closed-door sessions, or executive sessions, are initiated when a member makes a motion for a closed-door session and the public body votes on it. These sessions are attended by only members of the public body and persons they invite. Executive sessions may be held for only a few specific purposes. No votes may be taken or decisions made on the matter(s) discussed during the executive session. Members would have to reconvene their public meeting and then openly conduct a vote.
If any citizen believes that a public body has violated the Open Meetings Act, that citizen may file an injunctive action in common pleas court to compel the public body to obey the Act. If an injunction is issued, the public body must correct its actions, may have to pay court costs, and must pay a fine of $500. Whichever party loses the lawsuit pays the reasonable attorney fees of the other party as ordered by the court.
If someone is seeking access to a public body’s minutes, and the body is not turning them over, that person can file a mandamus action under the Public Records Act to force the creation of, or access to, meeting minutes. Mandamus can also be used to order a public body to give notice of meetings to the person filing the action.
Any action taken by a public body while that body is in violation of the Open Meetings Act is invalid. R.C. 121.22(H). A member of the public body who violates an injunction imposed for a violation of the Open Meetings Act may be subject to a court action removing that official from office.
Reach Frank Lewis at 740-353-3101, ext. 1928, or on Twitter @franklewis.