Editorial from The Vindicator The press in general – and this newspaper in particular – are too often obliged to fight what we call Sunshine battles, when public entities inadvertently or purposely violate open meetings or public records laws.
These cases result in wasted time and money by the public entity, the press and, sometimes, public- minded citizens who take the role of watchdogs.
Few of these Sunshine disputes have happy endings, but a recent incident in Trumbull County is an exception. It didn’t start out well, when reporters learned that Trumbull County commissioners had held two days of budget hearings without having notified the public or the press. But we have to commend Prosecutor Dennis Watkins – with whom this newspaper has had its public-access disagreements in the past – and William J. Danso, an assistant prosecuting attorney, who sent commissioners a three page-letter that should be read by every elected official in the county.
The letter lays out in detail how the unannounced budget hearings were a likely violation of the state’s open meetings law, how courts have viewed similar actions by other public bodies and how commissioners could best rectify their error.
Most importantly, Watkins and Danso used as the lynchpin of their explanation a phrase from the state’s open meetings law that it “shall be liberally construed to require public officials to take official action and to conduct all deliberations upon official business only in open meetings unless the subject matter is specifically excepted by law.”
Note the use of shall, all and specifically in that phrase. It doesn’t take a lawyer to recognize that the Legislature was sending a clear message that public officials must conduct the public’s business in the open.
There is no excuse for public officials to be ignorant of what the law requires, and yet, there is no shortage of instances where those officials – often elected and sometimes appointed – choose to interpret the law to their benefit, not that of the citizenry.
In the Trumbull County case, the failure to announce the budget meetings was a clerical oversight that resulted in two days of hearings that addressed some of the county’s most pressing financial challenges being held out of view of the press and the public. How the county is going to use its dwindling financial resources to provide vital services, including safety services provided by the Sheriff’s Department, is of obvious public interest.
The prosecutor’s office recommended the best possible solution: Hold new hearings and make the proper public announcement of the rescheduling. The alternative would have been for the commissioners to risk a subsequent challenge to any action they took on the budget because those actions would have been grounded on deliberations that were conducted behind closed doors.
Wisely, the commissioners accepted that counsel.
Contrast that attitude toward conducting the public’s business within the letter and the spirit of the Sunshine law with some of the contortions we have witnessed in the past by other boards and other legal advisers.
In March, Mahoning County commissioners went behind closed doors twice to discuss lead levels detected in tap water at the county-owned Oakhill Renaissance Place. One of the rationales Prosecutor Paul J. Gains offered at the time was that state law allows commissioners to go into a closed session to discuss labor-union grievance, Workers Compensation claims and civil lawsuits. But no grievances, compensation claims or lawsuits had been filed – or even threatened. Instead of liberally construing the law toward openness, commissioners and Gains chose to look into their crystal balls and see a possibility they used to justify discussing matters of clear public interest out of the public eye.
Recent years also have seen violations of the “liberally construed” clause or outright assaults on openness by a number of area school boards, various county offices, the Mill Creek MetroParks Board and several city councils and township boards of trustees.
Almost none of those assaults on the public’s right to know would have happened had the officials involved simply followed the mandate of the law and the recently offered advice from the Trumbull County prosecutor: construe the law liberally toward openness.