Backroom

Public officials throughout the state would be doing themselves, and taxpayers, a favor if they learn from the errors of the trustees of Clearcreek Township in Warren County.
This week, a judge ordered the township to pay $196,556 in legal fees and costs after finding the trustees had regularly met from 2009 to 2011 in an administrator’s office to work out their positions on issues prior to public meetings.
The informal gatherings were a clear violation of Ohio’s Open Meetings Act, which states, among other things, that officials must take official action and conduct all “deliberations upon official business” only in open meetings unless the subject is specifically exempt by law.
The law defines a public meeting as any prearranged discussion of public business that includes a quorum of the public body.
Judge James Flannery’s ruling will likely create financial problems for the township, which could have resolved the issue for less than $20,000 by admitting guilt and settling the case when it was first filed in 2011.
Instead, the township fought and lost.
The township’s insurance coverage was exhausted by the time the case went to trial, so the money will have to be paid out of the general fund.
The attorney representing the township argued the pre-meeting sessions were merely “fact-finding” sessions and that officials viewed the gatherings as a “well-intentioned effort to efficiently and responsibly discharge their duties as public officials, not to deliberate in secret.”
Flannery, in March, wrote that he didn’t think township officials acted with malice or intended to violate the law, but they should have known their actions were suspect.
“Respondents had been put on notice that their regular pre-meetings were raising suspicion and there is no evidence that they either stopped the meetings or sought the outside advice of counsel, as a reasonably prudent public entity ought to do.”
Wanting to keep public meetings moving and non-confrontational is one thing. Leaving the public out of the process is another.
What happened in Clearcreek Township happens in other places as well.
Flannery’s ruling should be a wake-up call to any government agency which mistakenly believes it can use backroom meetings to circumvent the law and get away with it.

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