Ohio Supreme Court says government bodies cannot conduct public business in private via email

From The Plain Dealer The Ohio Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that private prearranged discussion of public business, whether in person or electronically, is a violation of the Ohio Open Meetings Act if the discussion involves a majority of a public body's members.

In a 5-2 ruling, the court ruled that email correspondence between four board of education members and the school superintendent from the Olentangy School District in Delaware County constituted public business. Together, via email, the prepared a response to an editorial in The Columbus Dispatch that they found displeasing.

The fifth member of the school board appealed the action to the Supreme Court after his opening meetings lawsuit was dismissed at trial level and his appeal was rejected by the Ohio Fifth District Court of Appeals.

Justice Terrence O'Donnell, writing for the majority, wrote that state law requires that "(a)ll meetings of any public body are declared to be public meetings open to the public at all times." A meeting, under the Ohio Revised Code, is any prearranged discussion of the public business by a majority of its members.

"Nothing in the plain language of (the revised code) expressly mandates that a 'meeting' occur face to face. To the contrary, it provides that any prearranged discussion can qualify as a meeting," O'Donnell said.

A distinction between in-person communications and electronic conversations is a "distinction without a difference," O'Donnell wrote. Allowing public bodies to avoid the requirements of the Open Meetings Act by discussing public business via electronic communications would subvert the law.

One-on-one conversations would not be affected. But if the conversation includes a majority of a public body's members, the Open Meetings Act should apply.

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