Editorial: A $611,375 lesson on open meetings in Putnam County

Editorial from The Lima News Anything worth doing is worth doing right.

It’s a million dollar piece of advice, or at least $611,375 — and counting — for the Putnam County commissioners.

A visiting judge recently ordered Putnam County must pay $611,375 worth of legal fees in the ongoing Road 5 case. Back in 2012, the commissioners decided to use eminent domain to grab 10 feet on either side of Road 5 between Pandora and Leipsic, making a stretch of 11.2 miles 24 feet wide instead of its previous 20 feet.

Some landowners along the path objected, saying they didn’t want the extra truck traffic that would come with the wider road.

Unfortunately, the commissioners didn’t follow the Ohio’s laws to the letter and intent of the law. They skipped a few steps along the way, and the 3rd District Court of Appeals ruled in 2014 the commissioners violated Ohio’s Sunshine Laws.

“Ignorance appears to have been bliss with this board,” Visiting Judge Dale Crawford, of Franklin County, wrote in his ruling.

So what exactly did Putnam County get for this $611,375 payout? More accurately, it’s what the public didn’t get. The rules included $500 fines for each of the 13 times the commissioners skipped proper procedures involving public meetings:

• The commissioners didn’t have a written rule with a general policy regarding meeting notices.

• The county didn’t properly notify each landowner about the meetings.

• The county didn’t keep full and accurate minutes of the meetings.

• The commissioners improperly entered executive sessions on Feb. 16, 2012, and April 5, 2012.

• The commissioners also didn’t have minutes from meetings with the county prosecutor Feb. 21, 2012, or July 12, 2012.

The testimony of one commissioner during a hearing March 30 showed the judge the commissioners just didn’t understand Sunshine Law well enough. And that’s sad in Putnam County, where all three sitting commissioners have been re-elected at least once.

It’s especially sad in Putnam County, which had to pay $5,000 in damages and $31,399.74 in attorney fees in 2013 for 17 violations of Ohio’s Sunshine Laws involving the board of elections, including eight illegal executive sessions.

Obviously we have a stake in the game when it comes to governments operating in an open and fair way. It’s our job to tell you what’s happening, and we just can’t do that in closed-door meetings with no minutes kept. Executive sessions have limitations on how they can be used. They’re not just a tool to exclude the public when things get tense.

Residents of Putnam County should be equally frustrated, though. This $611,375 payout is a sizable chunk of money that could be better spent securing the county, paving the county’s roads or investing in better systems for county agencies. Instead, this money — your money as a taxpayer — will line the pockets of lawyers.

Sure, the commissioners could decide in a public meeting Tuesday to appeal. They’ll likely lose that too, since they’re in an indefensible position. They ignored the laws, and now they’ll have to pay the penalty, with your taxpayer dollars.

The cash register is still cha-chinging on this mistake, too. About half a dozen property owners still haven’t been paid for their property, although money has been set aside in escrow for what the county believes it will pay those landowners who didn’t accept the county’s original offers.

It’s too late to return Road 5 to its previous condition, as the appellate court noted, it would be a “tremendous waste of public resources.”

Public officials everywhere need to read the Sunshine Laws carefully to understand what they can and can’t do. Those laws are there for everyone’s protection. Yes, they can make government a bit slow and tedious, but that’s by design to make sure you’re not making another $611,375 mistake.