Dispatch editorial: Court's decision favors sunshine

Editorial from The Columbus Dispatch

Last week, the Ohio Supreme Court issued a crucial ruling to ensure public access to the discussions and decisions of governmental bodies such as school boards, city councils and the like. Had the ruling gone the other way, Ohio’s elected officials would have had a virtual carte blanche to conduct public business in secret.

In White vs. King, the court ruled that email discussions conducted by a majority of the Olentangy Board of Education constituted an illegal private meeting to discuss public business and take a decision on action.

The case dates to 2012, when school-board member Adam White independently investigated two district athletic directors and found that they had made improper expenditures. As a result, one director resigned and both were required to repay the district.

Unhappy with White’s action, four of his colleagues approved a policy requiring board members to seek permission of the district superintendent or treasurer before communicating with other district staff members. Shortly thereafter, The Dispatch published an editorial criticizing the board for putting a leash on board members, saying that board members “ought to be free to seek out firsthand knowledge of how their district is performing. Boards would be better advised to make free communication the policy, and then deal as needed with any problems that might arise.”

White’s colleagues decided to send an official board response as a letter to the editor. But they did not discuss this and make a decision in a public meeting, as required by law. Instead, they, the superintendent, and several other members of the district staff conferred about and composed the letter entirely via email, leaving White out of the process. He filed a lawsuit alleging that this was an illegal meeting of the board that violated Ohio’s Open Meetings law. Apparently rattled, White’s colleagues held a public vote to retroactively ratify the letter to the editor and to deny that they had violated Ohio’s open-meetings laws, actions that indicated nervousness, if not outright guilt.

But two lower courts ruled against White, arguing that conducting business by email did not constitute a “meeting” under state law. Last week, a solid 5-2 majority of the Supreme Court reversed the lower courts, finding that the email consultations and decision were indeed a meeting. The high court ordered the trial court to reconsider the case consistent with this ruling.

Had the Supreme Court affirmed the rulings of the lower courts, the result would have been dire for the right of the public to monitor the actions of government. As attorney David Marburger wrote in a friend-of-the-court brief, had the lower-court rulings been allowed to stand, all public bodies would be free to do what the Olentangy school board did.

“Public bodies, by design are policymakers,” he wrote. “If they can deliberate and decide issues via email, then later go through the sham exercise of ‘ratifying’ those earlier decisions, then the Sunshine Law is, as a practical matter, a dead letter…”

Marburger is right, and the importance of this ruling by the court can’t be overstated. It is possible that much public business already is being conducted by elected officials via email, phone, text and other forms of communication. If so, those officials now are on notice that this is illegal. And those who suspect this is happening and want to bring it to light now have the law on their side.

White, the Olentangy school-board member who brought this lawsuit, not only has served his school district well, he has benefited all Ohioans.