Dispatch editorial: Ohio Supreme Court can ensure that government operates openly

Columbus Dispatch editorial Open-meetings laws are effective only if they actually compel public entities to conduct public business in public. That clearly is the intent, and the Olentangy school board appears to have violated the intent of the law by discussing what should have been public matters through private emails.

The Ohio Supreme Court is being asked to take up an appeal of a case filed by an Olentangy school board member, Adam White, against other members who corresponded with each other via email before taking an official action. White filed suit last year in Delaware County Common Pleas Court, which ruled that four other school board members did not violate open-meetings laws in exchanging the emails.

The Dispatch would welcome the Supreme Court taking the case and affirming the need for boards to adhere to what often are referred to as “sunshine” laws. Other groups supporting White’s appeal include the Ohio Coalition for Open Government, Common Cause Ohio and the League of Women Voters of Ohio, all which joined in a “friend of the court” brief backing White.

The suit came about after the board’s four other members — Dave King, Julie Wagner Feasel, Kevin O’Brien and Stacy Dunbar — exchanged emails and calls that White says constituted an illegal, private meeting. Anyone in business today knows that many “meetings” as they were known a decade or two ago now have been replaced by this type of technology-enabled communication, so to argue that an email or phone call can’t constitute a meeting is nonsense.

That argument also renders meaningless the laws that are supposed to ensure public oversight of government. If a board thinks there are no consequences for these type of secretive communications, they will become commonplace, especially where controversial topics are involved.

Clear direction from the Supreme Court also would be welcome to counter another lower-court ruling in a similar Ohio case several years ago.

In 2005, an Ohio judge ruled against a board member in the Northwest Local School District in Cincinnati who alleged his colleagues broke open-meetings laws via emails; the judge said the man failed to prove that such an email could be called a meeting.

White is seen by some in the school district as a gadfly. Since his election in 2011, he often has been at odds with his school board colleagues, and accused the schools superintendent of threatening him — something other board members deny.

But he was elected to serve the public, and on this score, White seems to be doing his job.

Some boards already have been shown to act as rubber stamps for the administrations they were supposed to be overseeing, as was the case with Columbus City Schools under former Superintendent Gene Harris. Some government boards are surprised or even hostile when members of the public appear at meetings. Many operate for years with nary a “no” vote or substantive debate in open meetings, a clear indication that discussions and decisions are being made out of sight of the public.

This isn’t the way it’s supposed to work; technology was supposed to enhance, not reduce, transparency and access to information for the public.