Taxpayers in many Ohio communities are facing truly avoidable payouts and legal fees, all because their elected officials failed to follow the state’s open meeting laws to the letter.
Shame on officials in Hubbard city, Fowler, Johnston and Vienna. Each recently paid a portion of a $2,500 settlement after being sued for violations of Sunshine laws under Ohio law. The cases were brought by Brian Ames of Mogadore in Portage County. He sought remuneration for finding multiple instances of open meeting violations in several nearby communities.
In his research, Ames uncovered what he believed were quite a few cases of open meeting violations.
In addition to these recently settled cases, the plaintiff also has cases pending against Kinsman, Champion and Atwater Township in Portage County.
Now, some defendants and onlookers have criticized the plaintiff, calling him a “bounty hunter” for his efforts to scrutinize local meetings and scouring recorded minutes in search of violations that could award him cash on instances that some would claim really did no harm to anyone.
We say, however, every time Ohio’s Sunshine law is violated by our elected officials, it does harm to everyone. Way too often our officials seem to forget they are elected to do the work of the public, and therefore, that business must be conducted in public.
If such violations are allowed to pass unpunished or with a minor slap on the wrist, it sets precedent that it’s somehow OK and such violations, then, go on and on and on.
We believe citizens who take it upon themselves to patrol meetings for Sunshine law violations just might help remind government officials of their responsibility to the taxpayers and of the requirement for complete transparency.
In these cases, Ames’ attorney, Matthew Miller Novak, said, “Mr. Ames is dedicated to advocating for transparent government throughout northeast Ohio. The purpose of these lawsuits is to seek a court order prohibiting these governments from continuing to operate without complying with the requirements of the Open Meetings Act to ensure they are functioning transparently as possible.”
The biggest disappointment to all of us, however, is that when these types of violations are caught and penalized, it typically is the voters who suffer because it is the constituency who ends up paying the fines with public dollars.
When that happens, the voters must be informed and pay attention. They must make their dissatisfaction immediately heard at the polls during the next election cycle.
Many of the violations alleged by Ames in the local communities include issues dealing with improperly adjourning into executive session, or closed door sessions in which they are permitted to discuss a list of very specific issues.
Indeed, it is the responsibility of every elected official to be educated on Sunshine laws and to ensure they are conducting all business for the public who they represent out in the open.
Undeniably, all government officials must be dedicated to maintaining complete transparency in public business. They must be well versed in the language of Ohio’s Sunshine laws and then ensure that they live up not just to both the spirit and the letter of the law.
Further, we believe this issue should renew debate among state legislators about adding sharper teeth to Ohio’s Sunshine laws in order to hold more accountable those elected officials who violate those laws.