Portage County open meeting violation could nullify sales tax

From The Record Courier Portage County’s increased Sales and Use Tax could be nullified based on a court’s decision expected in October.

A complaint, heard this week in Portage County Court by visiting Judge Richard Reinbold, claims that the Portage County Board of Commissioners violated Ohio’s Open Meetings Act in 2015.

The complaint was filed by Brian Ames, a Randolph resident and member of the Portage County Tea Party. Denise Smith, civil division chief of the county prosecutor’s office, represented the commissioners in the case.

More than 15 high-profile witnesses were called to the stand to give his or her account of six meetings held in June, July and August of 2015.

Ames alleges in the complaint that those meetings violated Ohio law because no meeting notice was given and no minutes were taken. Three of those meetings involved what was deemed the Portage County Jail Overcrowding Task Force, an unofficial group formed by the commissioners to address the issue in its name.

“Portage County’s position is that there was no violation of the public meetings law and that then subsequent legislation, both the resolution passed under (Ohio Revised Code) and subsequent legislation under (a separate code) not be invalidated,” Smith said during closing remarks on Thursday. “A violation of the law takes place, yes, when there is a prearranged meeting of a public body and deliberations take place. Our positions is that the (meetings) were not meetings of a public body.”

However, Ames and his legal team claim that because more than one county commissioner was in attendance at each of those meetings, they become official meetings under the law.

While no official action was taken at any of the meetings, there is a possibility that legislation that resulted in the conversations had at those meetings could be invalidated. That includes the 5-year, one-quarter (0.25 percent) sales and use tax that the commissioners imposed in October of 2015.

The tax is expected to generate more than $25 million that will be used to construct an expansion to the county jail, as well as fund treatment and education programs to address the opiate epidemic in the county.

Reinbold is expected to issue his opinion in early October.

Witnesses included elected county officials, Coroner Dean DePerro, Treasurer Brad Cromes, Engineer Mickey Marozzi and Sheriff David Doak; Frank Hairston from the Portage Area Regional Transit Authority; Todd Peetz of the Regional Planning Commission; Bill Steiner of the Solid Waste District; Todd Bragg, the county’s budget and finance director; Joel Mowrey, head of the Mental Health and Recovery Board; Mark Frisone, head of Family & Community Services Inc.; and members of the Tea Party, Tom Zawistowski, Carl Crawford and Anne Kazmerzak.

Every witness had participated in the meetings in question. Each testified that the meetings were informational and that no action was taken. Ames claims that under Ohio law, meeting minutes must be kept when a majority of the board or committee takes official action, conducts deliberations or discusses “public business.”