Alan Miller column: Reynoldsburg school board conducts business in the dark

Column by Alan Miller, Editor, The Columbus Dispatch The Reynoldsburg Board of Education and its lawyers tried to hide an unusual expenditure of public dollars and got caught.

It’s remarkable that public officials would think that it’s a good idea to sneak a potentially controversial spending measure past the public.

Even more remarkable is that this is not the first time we have seen such stupidity by public officials and their lawyers, and undoubtedly it won’t be the last.

That’s one of many reasons we all should be grateful that a reporter asked a couple of simple questions: What was that vaguely worded resolution you voted to approve? And can I have a copy of the public record that provides the details?

What Dispatch reporter Shannon Gilchrist found was that the Reynoldsburg school board voted 3-2 to approve an agreement with Superintendent Tina Thomas-Manning to make her a consultant from her home for a full year for $100,000 plus benefits.

In return, she agreed to leave the office and not sue the district.

It was presented for a board vote as “the agreement with Ms. Tina Thomas-Manning as presented.” That’s it. No further detail. The vote came after the board met in a private session.

A board member who was asked about the agreement and the vote said that the district’s legal counsel, Bricker & Eckler, “really pushed the fact that we aren’t supposed to talk,” and that all questions were to be directed to the central office.

Think about that for a minute. An elected public official says she can’t discuss a public vote on public business because a lawyer advised the board not to talk about public business.

The settlement itself included a section titled “MEDIA COMMENT REGARDING THIS AGREEMENT,” which says that “the parties will not comment on this settlement agreement unless required by law to do so, and instead will present to the media and any media representative the joint statement attached as Exhibit B.”

That statement added a little detail, noting that the district would “continue to utilize Ms. Thomas-Manning’s expertise in the educational field as a consultant, and following that year she will be provided an unpaid leave of absence for one year,” but the statement said nothing about the cost to taxpayers.

Clearly, there are lawyers who think this is sound practice when it comes to avoiding a court battle.

But it’s important for public officials to remember that lawyers work for them, not the other way around. And the officials are responsible for seeing the bigger picture. That includes understanding that in the court of public opinion, any effort by public officials to hide public information generally blows up in the faces of those who try it. Because we always find out.

Sometimes, we or other members of the public find out because we sit in meetings, read meeting agendas, listen to speeches or hear public officials utter statements that simply aren’t clear, don’t add up or don’t make sense. And when we ask for clarification or documentation to explain what we’re reading or hearing, the truth comes out.

Other times, we hear about such moves because some good soul with a strong moral compass sees or hears something that he or she knows is wrong and should be exposed. These days, some people attach the pejorative label leak to such tips.

I call that bravery and doing the right thing, because to stand by and say nothing while someone in authority seeks to mislead the public, or worse, do something illegal, would make that person complicit.

And the consequences of hiding a controversial decision are far greater than being honest and transparent about that decision in the first place.

Such clumsy moves also can be costly in other ways. The Dispatch once sued a rural county prosecutor because he refused to release a public record. He didn’t think we should have it, regardless of what the law said, so he dug in his heels and we sued him. When he lost the lawsuit — and also was required by the court to pay our legal fees — he went with hat in hand to the county commissioners seeking money to pay the bill.

No dice, they told him. You made a bad decision; you pay the bill.

It was a painful lesson — one that I hope he and other public officials never forget.

Ohio may redact kids’ names from school bus crash reports

From The Dayton Daily News

In what could be a major shift in Ohio’s public records law, the names of children involved in hundreds of school bus accidents across the state each year would be withheld from disclosure on police reports.

Republican State Reps. Jeff Rezabek of Clayton and Peter Hambly of Brunswick are co-sponsoring a bill to exempt from public disclosure information on minors who are passengers in school bus accidents.

Medina resident William Horton asked Hambly to change the public records law after his 8-year-old son was a passenger in a school bus accident in May 2016. Horton was alarmed to learn that personal injury lawyers obtained his son’s name, date of birth, address and phone number from a traffic crash report.

“I felt that the law must be changed because if anyone can get this private information, what would stop criminals, fraudsters, pedophiles and other people who prey on children from getting this information,” Horton said in written testimony supporting House Bill 8.

The bill has support from the Ohio School Boards Association and others but it is strongly opposed by the Ohio News Media Association, which says it’ll set a dangerous precedent of redacting information from routine police reports on traffic accidents. Those reports provide basic details on what happened, where, when and who was involved.

Ohio’s Open Records law, which provides for scrutiny of state and local government documents, generally presumes openness, unless there is a compelling reason to close off access.

Rezabek says there is a compelling reason: disclosure puts minors at risk of possible identity theft.

“We are just trying to close that loophole, to make sure children identities aren’t stolen,” Rezabek said. He could not provide data on how often thieves steal children’s identities by requesting access to police incident reports on school bus crashes.

Between 2012 and 2016, there have been 6,606 crashes involving school buses, leading to 16 deaths and 2,317 injuries, according to the Ohio Highway Patrol.

Journalists often use police incident reports to gather information and reach out to victims and witnesses to find out what happened for accurate, timely news stories.

In November 2016, six elementary school students were killed and several injured in Tennessee when their bus driver was speeding and talking on a cell phone. Public records released by the school district showed students had complained about his dangerous driving before the accident.

Hetzel said it’s a “fool’s errand” to try to shield the school bus crash information since it’ll likely spread quickly on social media channels.

“In many cases, children’s names will be on the neighborhood Facebook page or other social media outlets in a matter of minutes — often with inflated and inaccurate information of names and extent of injuries,” he wrote to Ohio News Media Association members.

Rezabek maintains that journalists and any other member of the public could still obtain information on the minors by requesting it from the local school district. He noted, though, that the release policies may vary within Ohio’s 600-plus districts.

So, why should minors’ information only be protected when they’re involved in school bus crashes, as opposed to all traffic accidents? Rezabek said he’s taking it one step at a time.

House Bill 8 is scheduled on Wednesday to receive its third hearing.

Dispatch files new arguments in case seeking Pike County autopsy reports

From The Columbus Dispatch The Pike County Coroner cannot withhold the final autopsy reports of eight Rhoden family members killed nearly a year ago because he never discussed those reports with law enforcement officials, The Dispatch argued in a court filing on Friday.

That's important because Coroner David Kessler has said the reports are confidential law enforcement investigatory records, and that releasing them could jeopardize the investigation. But Kessler is not a law-enforcement officer and testified that he never discussed with law enforcement whether the records contained confidential information, the newspaper's lawyers argued in a filing with the Ohio Supreme Court.

"Kessler testified that at no time did any law enforcement personnel inform him or advise him that ... the autopsies contained confidential information or, if disclosed to the public, would have had any effect on the ongoing murder investigation," Marion Little, attorney for The Dispatch, wrote in the filing. The newspaper is seeking release of the documents under Ohio's Open Records Act.

Eight Rhoden family members — Dana, Hanna, Kenneth, Gary, Clarence "Frankie," Christopher Sr., Christopher Jr. and Hannah Gilley — were shot in the head. Seven were shot more than once. No arrests have been made in the April 22, 2016 killings.

After The Dispatch sued in August seeking access to the autopsy reports, Kessler released heavily redacted versions in September.

"The evidence now being presented to the Supreme Court clearly supports the position we have taken from the start — that autopsy reports are public records," said Alan D. Miller, editor of The Dispatch. "It demonstrates that autopsy reports are routinely made public in Ohio during the course of active investigations.
"Our goal with this legal action is to ensure that public officials follow the law and, more specifically to Pike County, that they provide access to public records that could shed light on the circumstances — and perhaps even the perpetrators — of a high-profile, unsolved homicide case."

Streetcar crash reviews should be public records, lawmaker says

From The Cincinnati Enquirer Why did the Cincinnati Bell Connector crash into a cement truck or a Metro bus? Current Ohio law shields details from the public.

Rep. Tom Brinkman, R-Mount Lookout, wants to change that. He hopes to eliminate a 21-year-old law that prevents the streetcar's riders from reading internal crash investigations and safety audits.

Under current law, Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority must conduct annual safety audits of the streetcar, and the Ohio Department of Transportation must perform periodical, on-site safety reviews. But none of those records are available for public inspection – unless the ODOT director grants an exception.

Internal investigations into each crash are reported to ODOT, but the public can't inspect them either because state law forbids disclosure. In its first months, the streetcar was involved in 10 traffic accidents and another four safety “incidents.”

"Our streetcar has been using that as an excuse for not giving us the records," said Brinkman, a longtime opponent of the streetcar project.

SORTA can, and does, release basic information on each crash. When the streetcar collided with the cement truck and Metro bus on Nov. 1, SORTA gave details about both crashes and how long service was suspended in a news release. What was missing: what actually caused the drivers of the vehicles to collide.

"We are not permitted to say anything beyond the basic facts. State law does not let us go beyond that," said SORTA spokeswoman Sallie Hilvers, adding that the transit authority would comply with whatever Ohio law requires.

If a crash occurs on city streets, Cincinnati police would write an incident report, which would be available for public inspection. That report might come to the similar conclusions as the transit authority's internal review would, but it wouldn't include the safety audits from transportation officials.

It was not clear why the records for streetcars and other light rail operations were shielded from public view more than 20 years ago when only Cleveland had a rail system. ODOT spokesman Matt Bruning suggested the reports might contain security information that should not be disclosed.

Brinkman's change was added into the state's transportation budget, which passed out of a House committee Thursday. The budget still needs approval from the Ohio House and Senate, which are controlled by Republicans.

Editorial from The Findlay Courier: Secret database

Editorial from The Findlay Courier Before Ohio’s budget bills get approved, they almost always turn into a grocery list of add-ons that have little to nothing to do with day-to-day government.

The Senate’s budget plan is no exception. Since the House handed over its budget proposal, the Senate has proposed hundreds of changes. Among them is a provision that would end the ability of journalists to review lists of names of concealed-carry permit holders maintained by sheriffs’ offices.

Current law grants journalists access to the concealed-carry lists, but prohibits them from copying or writing down any information. Use is rare. Reporters will sometimes use the lists to determine if a person accused of a crime has been issued a permit or if a felon had been improperly approved to carry a gun.

But Sen. Joe Uecker, R-Loveland, wants the exception eliminated. He says the publication of a permit holder’s name can violate their privacy and could compromise their safety.

Uecker, a concealed carry and National Rifle Association instructor and former police officer, failed in getting a similar measure approved in the last Legislature.

If successful this time, concealed carry records would be sealed, with the only access available through a court order. Dennis Hetzel, executive director of the Ohio Newspaper Association, said sheriffs should not be allowed to maintain secret databases of permit holders.

Once “government decides to create a record, the law in Ohio couldn’t be clearer that it is an open record unless there is a compelling reason to close it,” Hetzel told The Columbus Dispatch. Uecker’s proposal stems, in part, from The Sandusky Register’s publication of names and dates of birth of about 2,500 concealed-carry permit holders in 2007. Most Ohio newspapers, including The Courier, have never published lists.

The privacy concerns seemed to be addressed several years ago, when lawmakers amended state law to effectively prevent newspapers from publishing lists of permit holders. Journalists aren’t allowed to bring in writing utensils with them or make copies when they review the lists.

Certainly, both the First and Second Amendments are important, but there needs to be balance. The Uecker proposal tilts the scale too far, and shouldn’t be rushed through on the tail of a budget bill.

Instead, the Senate should pull the add-on, and give it the discussion it deserves.

Jack Greiner column: Ferguson, Clinton show need for sunshine

By Jack Greiner, The Cincinnati Enquirer Jack Greiner is a lawyer with Graydon Head in Cincinnati and represents Enquirer Media in First Amendment and media issues.

My earliest memory of the month of March was one of disappointment. When I was about 5 or so, I remember my mom saying something about March "coming in like a lion." At that tender age, I was not intimately familiar with the concept of metaphors, so on March 1, I spent an inordinate amount of time looking out my window to see a lion wandering the streets of Cheviot. None appeared. That was no doubt a good thing, but to an abnormally impressionable kid like me, it was a letdown.

As I grew older March meant spring break. And while I didn't have the means to travel to Florida, it was still nice to get a break from my studies. Of course, as a sports fan, March has always meant the NCAA tournament and the imminent arrival of Opening Day. Doesn't get much better than that.

But more recently, I've come to see March as the arrival of Sunshine Week – the time when we consider the importance of open government. While it may not pack all the drama of March Madness, government transparency is worth a commemoration.

And while we tend to think of the concept of open government as an American value (and it is) the concept is a little older than that. Like by over 2000 years. Here's what the New Testament has to say about it: "For every one who practices evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his works be reproved. John 3:19-20."

That passage really gets to the heart of the matter, doesn't it? Bad things happen in private. Even in our current climate of oversharing on social media, have you ever seen a public official announce "I'm about to take a bribe. OMG"? Or how about a cop saying "I'm proud to say I've hassled black drivers whenever I pulled them over. LOL." I haven't either. Not everything that happens behind closed doors is bad, but bad things almost always happen behind closed doors.

For that reason, Ohio, like most states, has statutes that require public records be available for public inspection and public meetings be open to the public. And while the Apostle John didn't write the laws, his admonition lies at the heart of the laws. The public, frequently via the press has the right to observe what its elected and appointed officials are up to. This is so for at least two compelling reasons. First, access allows us to expose and punish wrong doing. The appalling findings by the Justice Department's investigation in Ferguson relied in large part on records. Access to that information ensures guilty parties are punished and abuses are corrected.

But perhaps just as important as the ability to use public records to look back is the power to prevent corruption in the first place. I had an economics professor at Miami University who said once: "Locks don't keep crooks out, they just keep honest people honest." Our Sunshine Acts act like that metaphorical lock. If our elected and appointed officials know their actions are subject to public view (including emails, Hillary) they are less likely to abuse their office. To use John's words, if public officials' works are subject to being "reproved" those officials are more likely to behave.

So let us use this March week to celebrate sunshine and resolve to keep those laws strong and vibrant. The Bible tells us so, after all.

Editorial: The public’s business should be conducted in public – two council members censured

Editorial from The Plain Dealer Mao Zedong had the Gang of Four to enforce political compliance during China's Cultural Revolution. South Euclid City Council has the Gang of Five.

The members of this constitutionally-impaired cabal should be ashamed of themselves. As should Law Director Michael Lograsso for allowing them to waste taxpayer time and money on a resolution that attempts to chill transparency and public disclosure.

South Euclid Council President David Miller -- with the support of four colleagues -- has censured council members Ed Icove and Ruth Gray for supposedly "violating the rules of this Council and Robert's Rules of Order for disclosing the confidential discussions held by this body in the executive session on November 24, 2014 to individuals outside the council membership."

Juicy details about pending litigation? Insider info on property acquisition that could benefit a real estate developer?

Nothing so nefarious.

The news concerned the hiring of South Euclid Mayor Georgine Welo's son Miles Welo by Cleveland law firm Mansour, Gavin, Gerlack & Manos, which does work for South Euclid.

It was announced in executive session as part of a larger discussion of ongoing civil litigation, Mansour, Gavin attorney Tony Coyne said for this editorial.

"I didn't think it was a big deal," Coyne added.

Miller did. "Since it was mentioned in executive session, it was privileged information," he argued. Miller added that Lograsso agreed with him. Lograsso did not return a call for comment.

Icove was accused in the resolution of leaking the matter to the media.

Northeast Ohio Media Group reporter Sara Dorn has denied in print that Icove was her source. Dorn has not identified who provided the information.

Gray brought up the Miles Welo hiring during a December City Council meeting.

Icove and Gray have unsuccessfully requested an apology.

"Anything discussed in executive session stays in executive session," insists Mayor Welo. "You cannot break the code."

She's wrong.

The public's business should be conducted in public, not in executive sessions -- apart from the well-defined exceptions provided under Ohio law. Closed-door policy-making promotes an opaque culture that thrives on secrecy rather than oversight.

The public's right to know includes knowing when the son of a mayor is hired by a law firm that does business with the city.

Editorial: Body cams on police need public comment, best practices

Editorial from The Plain Dealer The recent purchase of 1,500 body cameras for Cleveland patrol officers is a welcome move in trying to rebuild credibility and trust with a public still concerned over the fatal police shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice and a recent U.S. Justice Department report that excoriated the police department's use of force.

Body cams on police officers have the potential to increase transparency, accountability and professionalism. But the technology is only as effective as the policies that govern its use.

In 2013, the Police Executive Research Forum partnered with the U.S. Department of Justice to make recommendations on the use of such cameras. A key finding was "the need for a set of standards and best practices regarding body-worn cameras."

Now's the time to develop specific policies for the body cams' use in Cleveland, with full input from the public.

What training will officers undergo? How will privacy issues around crimes such as sexual assaults, domestic violence and abuse of minors be handled? What protocols will govern the release of public records?

"The public needs to understand how these cameras are gonna work," said Cleveland City Councilman Zack Reed, who has been demanding body cams for the better part of a decade. "But we [council] are not doing our due diligence. We should have a policy in place that clearly states what we're gonna do."

Reed is right.

The city of Cleveland is developing a policy that is "in the final stage of review," according to an email from police spokeswoman Jennifer Ciaccia. She added that she did not know when officers were expected to start wearing the body cams, but suggested there would be a public announcement about the general policy on use around the time of their deployment.

Dan Williams, a spokesman for Mayor Frank Jackson, did not return calls for comment. It's unclear whether the city plans public hearings on the policy before it is implemented.

Council President Kevin Kelley said developing the policy wasn't council's job. "It's ultimately an administrative decision," he said.

Kelley is wrong. Council has a duty to make sure the public is included -- via public hearings -- for full transparency on what the policy encompasses, and also to make sure that all concerns are taken into account.

Attorneys scoff at state health department’s claim of non-existent records

From The Columbus Dispatch For more than two years, Ohio Department of Health officials told judges and justices that it was nearly impossible — even under subpoena — for the agency to turn over past test results from Intoxilyzer 8000 alcohol breath-test machines.

Faced with an Ohio Supreme Court decision that could have made the $8,000 machines useless in testing drunken-driving suspects, the agency now says it expects to be able to turn over test results to defense attorneys by Dec. 1.

Over the years, some judges across Ohio have refused to admit test results from the Intoxilyzer 8000, ruling that it has not been proved scientifically reliable.

The Supreme Court ruled on Oct. 1 that DUI defendants are allowed to challenge the accuracy of their tests by obtaining data from previous results generated by the alcohol-test machine into which they blew.

Health officials had said it was a difficult technical and financial challenge to turn over years’ worth of computerized data about previous drivers’ test results and calibration tests from the oft-questioned testers.

Now, records provided in response to a request by The Dispatchshow that attorneys who since have issued subpoenas for test results are being told that “software is being created to access the requested records.”

DUI defense attorneys had contested the notion that the state could not produce data from hundreds of the Intoxilyzer 8000s that the health department bought for $7 million in 2009 and distributed to law-enforcement agencies across Ohio.

Defense lawyers said that state officials balked at turning over the data because it could prove that the machines deliver inaccurate results and cannot be legally relied on to convict suspects of drunken driving.

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'Crippling penalties' urged for drillers hiding fracking chemical lists

From Columbus Business First Some big, diverse names are speaking out on proposed EPA rules that could require oil and gas drillers to disclose the chemicals they use in fracking.

Comments from the New York Attorney General and commissioners in Portage County, Ohio, plea for federal regulation, while oilfield services giant Halliburton Co. and the governor of Wyoming want the EPA to butt out. The commenting deadline was Sept. 18.

Drillers generally oppose such regulations. They say their mix of chemicals used to get gas and oil out of shale is a trade secret. Other groups are in favor, because when accidents happen it’s imperative to know what emergency responders are dealing with. Plus, nearby residents should know what’s being pumped beneath them.

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Website compares Ohio charter schools, districts

From The Columbus Dispatch Noting the current difficulty in finding information about charter schools and how they compare with traditional Ohio public schools, a progressive policy-research group and the state’s largest teachers union teamed up to create a website that allows for quick comparisons.

But charter-school advocates quickly criticized the site as “really misleading.”

Knowyourcharter.com allows people to search by traditional public-school district or charters to bring up a variety of academic performance, personnel and financial information. Calling up a public school district also brings up a list of all the charter schools that at least one student from that district attends.

Viewers can find out how the district’s performance index grade compares with charters, how much state money from that district goes to charter schools, and a variety of other data.