Sentinel-Tribune editorial: Public business should be public

Some things are better in the dark. Movies. Fireworks. Sleeping.

But discussions that have to do with public health and safety should be in the light of day. The glare may make it less comfortable for public officials to talk about sticky issues, however, that’s the glory of our government.

Not only can a little sunshine go a long way toward solving issues, but the public deserves to be aware of the discussion.

Despite this, the public was again shut out last week of a meeting on a topic that many have a great interest in — water.

It was just over a year ago when much of the northern portion of Wood County was advised to not drink tap water due to unsafe levels of toxin produced by algae. Countless meetings have been held to find solutions to the problem and prevent it from happening again.

It’s hard to believe that public officials don’t realize that the people they serve are intently interested in the well-being of their water.

But last week, reporters from the Sentinel-Tribune and the Rossford Record were denied access to a meeting on water held in Perrysburg.

The Wood County commissioners had been invited to the meeting, billed as a mayors forum to discuss “Our Water Supply.” So Sentinel-Tribune County Editor Alex Aspacher planned to attend as well.

But Aspacher and Rossford reporter Beth Church were informed that the meeting was not intended for the public.

Perrysburg Mayor Michael Olmstead, who organized the event, said he worried those attending wouldn’t speak openly with media in the room. Among about 40 people present were officials from Toledo, Lucas and Wood counties.

Upon learning the public was not welcome, the Wood County commissioners declined to participate.

Perrysburg Municipal Administrator Bridgette Kabat said the commissioners were invited to “listen and observe” the meeting rather than participate, and that Ohio Revised Code allows such a meeting to take place behind closed doors.

I have never heard of such a provision that allows public officials to meet in private as long as they listen and don’t speak.

Neither has the commissioners’ office.

“The hosts of the meeting were saying that it wasn’t a public meeting — even though more than one commissioner was there — because the commissioners would not be making decisions at the meeting,” Wood County Administrator Andrew Kalmar said. “We disagree with that premise.

“Basically the law says that if they are there to consider the business of the public, it’s a meeting,” he continued. “It doesn’t say anything about making a decision.

“They are certainly supportive of the topic at hand and wished to participate in that discussion, but they simply were not comfortable with the premise of the meeting as not being a public meeting,” Kalmar said of the commissioners.

After last week’s meeting, Olmstead did tell our reporter that the discussion centered on future water supply alternatives other than continuing to contract with Toledo.

“Communities are going to have to start making decisions,” as their contracts with Toledo expire, Olmstead said. “It’s a matter of months, not years.”

Why wait to let the public know what options are being studied? Despite the fears of some public officials, a little sunshine makes for healthier and honest decisions.

So thanks to the county commissioners for realizing that public business should be conducted in public. And here’s hoping that Perrysburg officials learn to let a little sunshine in.