Ohio Supreme Court accepts jurisdiction in Open Meetings Act case

From Gongwer

The Ohio Supreme Court has agreed to take up a case that could determine if public bodies violate the Open Meetings Act by utilizing secret ballots.

The court has accepted the appeal of Patricia Meade, who alleged the Village of Bratenahl violated the law in 2015 when its council utilized a secret ballot to elect a president pro tempore.

The election required three rounds of voting, and the ballots were reviewed only by the village's law director, according to Ms. Meade, who is the publisher of a community news publication.

In her memorandum in support of jurisdiction, Ms. Meade cites an advisory opinion from the attorney general's office and a 2016 Ohio Supreme Court ruling in which it found a private and prearranged discussion of public business by a majority of a public body through email violates the state's open meeting laws.

"The OMA expressly declares that it is to be liberally construed in openness so as to require public officials to take official action and conduct all deliberations upon official business only in open meetings. In so doing, this court must conclude and declare that secret-ballot voting violates the OMA," she wrote.

Both the trial court and the Eight District Court of Appeals sided with the village in the case.

Ms. Meade said the appellate court ruling "created a standard that does not advance the purposes and goals of the OMA, but directly undermines them."

The Ohio Coalition for Open Government struck a similar tone in its amicus brief supporting jurisdiction in the case.

"If permitted to stand, the decision below will allow local governments to effectively operate in secret, impairing the public's ability to hold their representatives accountable," the group wrote. "Public knowledge of government operations is vital to the legitimacy of local governments in Ohio."

The village, however, said there is no statute or case law that spells out how a vote for president pro tempore should be conducted.

"In fact, (the law) authorizes a legislative authority of a municipal corporation to determine its own rules and in this matter, village council followed its own past practice of using a contemporaneous vote by ballot to elect president pro tempore to a one-year term," the village wrote in opposing jurisdiction in the case.

The village also contends that the secret ballots were not designed to hide public business.

"Contrary to appellant's argument, the purpose of the handwritten ballot was not (to) conceal, but rather, to vote contemporaneously," it wrote. "A contemporaneous vote by handwritten ballot assures comradeship and precludes the potential public pressure resulting from hearing the other councilmember's votes."

Canton Repository uses public records to determine who paid for new Hall of Fame stadium

From Ohio.com

Throughout its reconstruction, confusion has circulated about how Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium was paid for — mostly, about how much public money helped to finance the nearly $139 million project.

The answer: $15 million.

The rest of the stadium was paid through private donations and loans, according to financial documents The Canton Repository obtained through public records requests.

Comparatively, most football stadiums built in the past decade have relied on at least 25 percent funding in public dollars, usually far higher percentages.

Budget documents prepared by developers and filed with the Stark County Port Authority detail how much the stadium cost, where money came from and how costs changed during construction. They show the financing plan largely relied on equity, loans and naming rights — not on public support.

Benson Stadium was dedicated last August, but some work remains. The east end zone needs to be built, estimated to cost $8 million, as does the permanent scoreboard, which will be part of the facade of another building envisioned for the Village.

The stadium is the most visible component of the nearly $1 billion Johnson Controls Hall of Fame Village planned for the campus around the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Several new youth fields also have been constructed, and a four-star hotel broke ground more than a year ago, with resumption expected this year.

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New York unveils freedom of information website

From Government Technology

Gov. Andrew Cuomo unveiled a new website that he says will make it easier for the public and the press to access records from various state entities under New York's Freedom of Information Law.

The website, called Open Foil NY, offers a centralized online location to file FOIL requests with 59 state agencies and public authorities and was lauded by Cuomo as offering, for the first time, a uniform method to submit requests for government records through a single website.

In addition, Cuomo said the system will be the first of its kind in the nation that will provide an open-access records request "web form" that allows the requester to select multiple state agencies for a single records request.

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Consultants for Columbus Schools pledge to follow sunshine laws in new superintendent search

From The Columbus Dispatch

The next superintendent of Columbus City Schools might be announced in mid-October and on the job by January, under a timeline the Columbus Board of Education set with its hired search firm on Monday night.

During a special meeting, representatives from Chicago-based B.W.P. & Associates advised board members that they need to broaden who they would consider for the job.

Retired superintendents from other states, deputy superintendents from urban districts and those serving as interim superintendents would be good choices because they tend to have relevant experience and more flexibility to start mid-year, said search consultant Debra Hill.

... The search consultants said they recognize that Ohio law requires that the names of superintendent applicants be made public. Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates, which conducted a search for Columbus superintendent earlier this year, kept some candidates secret.

“We understand the Sunshine Law and we’re going to follow it ...” said B.W.P. representative Kevin Castner. “We’re going to have to make sure that we do exactly what your legal counsel tells us for Ohio.”

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Judge considers public access to opioid data

From The Herald Star

A federal judge in Ohio will consider whether to allow public access to government data detailing years of prescription opioid painkiller shipments.

The information is at the heart of lawsuits filed by hundreds of local governments against the companies that manufacture, distribute and sell the drugs, which are blamed for sparking an addiction and overdose crisis that killed more 42,000 Americans in 2016 alone.

The federal government agreed earlier this year to share the data with the governments in cases overseen by Judge Dan Polster in U.S. District Court in Cleveland. The agreement came with tight limits allowing only the plaintiffs to see the information.

But journalists for The Washington Post and HD Media, which owns The Charleston Gazette-Mail in West Virginia, have made public records requests seeking the data. The Charleston newspaper reported in 2016 on a version of data that it obtained for West Virginia, finding that 780 million pills flowed into the state over a six-year period during which more than 1,700 residents died in overdoses from prescription opioids.

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Environmental group claims ODNR illegally withholding records

From The Columbus Dispatch

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources is facing a lawsuit from an environmental group that alleges the department has illegally withheld public records.

The Athens-based Buckeye Environmental Network requested to view public records regarding oil and gas waste turned into a chemical product used by the Ohio Department of Transportation to deice roads, but its request was denied. The group says the chemicals are dangerous and harmful to the environment and that ODNR, which tests the chemical, would not allow the group to see the most recent tests on the product.

“We requested to review all records held by the agency in order to determine how and if the agency plans to take steps to remove this product from the consumer market. The product was found to contain high levels of both Radium 226 and 228. And with the pending legislation (House Bill 393 and Senate Bill 165) on this product, we believe that the public has a right to know how much radiation they have been or may be exposed to if they use this product,” executive director Teresa Mills said in a statement.

ODNR says it attempted to work with the environmental group through the records request process, but the group decided to pursue a lawsuit in Franklin County Common Pleas Court.

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Meet the guys who tape Trump's papers back together

From Politico

Solomon Lartey spent the first five months of the Trump administration working in the Old Executive Office Building, standing over a desk with scraps of paper spread out in front of him.

Lartey, who earned an annual salary of $65,969 as a records management analyst, was a career government official with close to 30 years under his belt. But he had never seen anything like this in any previous administration he had worked for. He had never had to tape the president’s papers back together again.

Armed with rolls of clear Scotch tape, Lartey and his colleagues would sift through large piles of shredded paper and put them back together, he said, “like a jigsaw puzzle.” Sometimes the papers would just be split down the middle, but other times they would be torn into pieces so small they looked like confetti.

It was a painstaking process that was the result of a clash between legal requirements to preserve White House records and President Donald Trump’s odd and enduring habit of ripping up papers when he’s done with them — what some people described as his unofficial “filing system.”

Under the Presidential Records Act, the White House must preserve all memos, letters, emails and papers that the president touches, sending them to the National Archives for safekeeping as historical records.

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Audit confirms improper no-bid contract scheme at Ohio's Department of Administrative Services

From The Columbus Dispatch

It’s old news, but state information technology officials ignored bidding requirements for years to hand out millions of dollars in no-bid consulting contracts, according to a “public interest report” by the office of Ohio Auditor Dave Yost.

The audit, prompted by an investigation by The Dispatch published in April 2017, confirmed the newspaper’s finding of at least $15 million in unbid work while noting that “numerous policy safeguards to prevent waste and abuse do not exist.”

Controls over purchasing at the Department of Administrative Services were so weak that “it’s impossible to verify whether the state overpaid for services” through the improper no-bid contracts, Yost’s office said in its report released early Thursday.

“Because key information and documentation is lacking, it’s impossible to know exactly what happened in these contracts,” Yost said in a statement. “One thing we do know is that the process at place at DAS is not even close to being considered a ‘best practice.’ They can, and must, do better.”

The Dispatch reported last year that top state information technology officials improperly failed to seek bids or price quotes and sidestepped approval of the Controlling Board — a bipartisan spending watchdog panel — in routing unbid work costing more than $200 an hour to two favored contractors. Lower-ranking state purchasing analysts, meanwhile, had warned that the contracts were improper and might be overpriced.

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Bill would allow auditor to look over shoulder of JobsOhio

From The Columbus Dispatch

Although JobsOhio objects — and Gov. John Kasich is likely to do so as well — the Ohio Senate on Wednesday unanimously passed a measure sought by state Auditor Dave Yost that would authorize his office to look over the shoulder of the privatized economic-development entity.

An amendment incorporated into a bill Wednesday would permit the auditor’s office to play a role in outlining the scope of performance audits and give it access to the work papers produced by private accounting firms conducting the audits of the nonprofit.

Republican Yost long has lobbied for increased accountability from and oversight of JobsOhio. The entity was exempted from public-records laws and government oversight when it was created to supplant the state Development Department in 2015 and was granted a lease of the state’s liquor-sales operation to finance its operations.

“JobsOhio is a quasi-public agency that exists to serve a public purpose for Ohioans,” Yost said. “The people of Ohio deserve a seat at the table. This amendment ensures that any performance audit of JobsOhio is completely independent.”

The language, which advances to the House for consideration, would require performance audits of JobsOhio every four years beginning in 2021 under written agreements to include the auditor’s office.

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Supreme Court to hear OCOG-supported case on secret ballot voting

This morning the Ohio Supreme Court accepted our appeal from a Cuyahoga County Court of Appeals case questioning whether Ohio’s Open Meetings Act permits public bodies to vote by secret ballot.

A 2011 Ohio Attorney General’s Opinion Letter says no, as does a 2011 Hamilton County Common Pleas Court decision. But to date, the Ohio Supreme Court has not addressed this question. But the Cuyahoga County Courts disagreed.

This is an important case, meriting an amicus brief in support of jurisdiction from the Ohio Coalition for Open Government. Learn more about OCOG here.

The Ohio Supreme Court now has an opportunity to declare once and for all that secret ballot voting is not consistent with the demands of open government.

Case documents in State of Ohio ex rel. More Bratenahl et al. v. Village of Bratenahl et al.  are available on the Ohio Supreme Court’s website, here.

We will post updates as briefing is completed. Read more about this case here.