Editorial: Police body cameras are here, law should catch up

Editorial from The Columbus Dispatch

The process of equipping all Columbus police officers with body cameras appears to be going relatively smoothly and ahead of schedule, and that’s a credit to the department and the officers.

Meanwhile, we hope the General Assembly will move as purposefully to pass legislation which aims to clarify that video from police body cameras is a public record, while establishing some exceptions.

Current law isn’t clear, and the Ohio Supreme Court is preparing to hear a case in which the Cincinnati Enquirer is challenging the city of Cincinnati’s refusal to release bodycam video from an Aug. 8 incident in which an officer used a Taser on a suspect.

We live in a world in which cameras are everywhere, and bystanders’ video has been the basis of numerous complaints of police brutality. Having an official video record from an officer’s perspective is a good insurance policy, both for the public and for officers.

City officials expected the full rollout of about 1,300 body-mounted cameras to take until the end of this year, but now they expect all of them to be in place by the end of June.

It isn’t a simple matter of clipping a camera onto each officer. The city had to buy server space to store the video and run fiber-optic cable to police substations so the video can be uploaded. To its credit, the city has budgeted for additional employees to handle requests from the public to see bodycam footage.

The primary benefit of body cameras is to afford the public a view of how police officers do their jobs. If there’s not an efficient system in place to make that happen, they’re far less valuable.

House Bill 425 states clearly that body-camera video is public and establishes a process for anyone who is denied access to body-camera video to file a mandamus action in the Ohio Supreme Court challenging the denial. Rep. Hearcel Craig, a Columbus Democrat, is a primary sponsor of the bipartisan legislation along with Rep. Niraj Antani, a Miamisburg Republican.

The bill, which has yet to receive a hearing, allows some exceptions, but they’re generally narrow and reasonable. Dennis Hetzel, executive director of the Ohio News Media Association and as such an advocate for transparency, said the bill is better than many other states’ laws regarding body-camera video.

Police officers deserve some credit for adapting to the cameras with minimal fuss.

Even though the cameras ultimately protect good cops by disproving any false claims of police misbehavior, getting accustomed to having one’s every public interaction recorded must be a challenge.

Officer Joseph Bogard learned that the hard way when he faced a public backlash and earned a written reprimand in September after body cameras recorded him talking big to other officers about how roughly he would have handled a difficult suspect who was just arrested.

In a report on the incident, a sergeant wrote that, while Bogard’s comments were insensitive, officers often use “crude humor and crass language to cope with the stress of being involved in dangerous and traumatic incidents such as this.”

Further, he said, “Officers are adjusting to the shrinking number of venues in which they can process and de-stress in an authentic and real manner.”

That shrinking is a price officers are paying for body cameras.

But for them and for the public, the transparency and fairness cameras offer are worth it.

Records scarce on sexual misconduct at Ohio Statehouse

From the AP

By now, citizens are familiar with the drill: Politician resigns to "spend more time with family," a cryptic apology or plea for privacy ensues, and, only days or weeks later do journalists unearth the documents, images or private posts that tell the full story.

This is what happened with a sexual harassment case last year against state Sen. Cliff Hite, a Findlay Republican, who left office after legislative investigators found that he had engaged in inappropriate conversations and physical contact with a female state worker.

Sexual misconduct allegations against state Rep. Wes Goodman, a Cardington Republican, also emerged in a spotty fashion following his resignation after House leaders discovered he'd engaged in a sexual encounter in his state office.

No centralized place existed for journalists to go to determine what they'd done. Such complaints can be lodged or investigated in half a dozen places, including by an employer, a law enforcement agency or the Ohio Civil Rights Commission.

Getting at the public records that detailed Hite's and Goodman's actions all but required members of the press to already know who did what when and to whom.

"There's sort of a natural tension between the right to know and victims' rights groups, when more often than not we're on the same side," said Dennis Hetzel, executive director of the Ohio News Media Association. "There's this natural paralysis around sexual assault that tends to make more information secret than should be secret."

A 50-state review by The Associated Press found that the majority of state legislative chambers have no publicly available records of any sexual misconduct claims over the past decade. Those with no information to provide either said no complaints were made, no tally was kept or that they didn't legally have to disclose the information.

In Ohio, certain records on the Hite and Goodman cases - an investigative file on Hite, and suggestive social media exchanges revealing inappropriate behavior by Goodman - were released in response to public records requests submitted by the AP and others.

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Even if it’s nothing, the new Homeland Security press tracker could turn into something

From The RCFP

Late last week, Bloomberg Law reported on a contract solicitation at the Department of Homeland Security for a “media monitoring” service that would track almost 300,000 news sources globally, in more than 100 languages. According to the bid, DHS wants the ability to track “media influencers,” to query the database for all coverage related to DHS or “a particular event” and to follow social media conversations. The desired database would also be able to categorize coverage by “sentiment.”

Many are concerned, especially in light of the Trump administration’s ongoing denigration of critical news stories as “fake news” and fear that the president would seek to misuse various levers of power such as merger review or “leaks” investigations against perceived enemies in the press.

In response to questions about the story, DHS’s press secretary unhelpfully tweeted that any suggestion that this is somehow out of the ordinary or a threat to press freedom, is “fit for tin foil hat wearing, black helicopter conspiracy theorists.”

We don’t know much. But the right answer here may be that, even if this is nothing now, it may end up being something. That is, while it is certainly true that the public and private sector routinely use large media relations databases to track coverage and identify press opportunities, if used for other purposes or if integrated into law enforcement or intelligence databases, this may still be in the realm of Orwell.

First, there are a couple of potentially troubling aspects of the proposal itself.  

Notably, the solicitation here was issued not by the main press office at DHS, but by a component that is actively engaged in the business of national security—the National Protection and Programs and Directorate.  

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Court: Park district violated open records law

From The Chagrin Valley Times

An Ohio court has been advised to rule that the Geauga Park District violated the state’s open records law when it denied a Russell Township resident’s request for a copy of a letter cited at an Aug. 8, 2017 park board meeting.

Jeffery W. Clark, serving as special master for the Ohio Court of Claims, recommended last week that the court issue an order that Shelley Chernin’s Aug. 14 request for the letter be honored and she be given the document. In addition, Mr. Clark ordered that the park district pay her costs associated with the eight-month fight to get the copy, including the $25 filing fee Ms. Chernin paid to bring the case before the court of claims.

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Editorial: Community deserved more transparency on Mount Pleasant vote

From The Lancaster Eagle-Gazette

Were you surprised upon hearing the city's Parks Board had narrowly voted to approve the lighting of Mount Pleasant? Join the crowd.

Would you have liked one more say on the matter? Too bad.

The board, which held a pair of public sessions last year to discuss the possible lighting of the Fairfield County icon, met March 14 and approved the idea. It's done.

Let's be clear: The board said, as early as late December, that they would likely vote in March. In that sense, they believed that was an ample warning of their decision — and it was a huge one for a lot of people inside, and outside, Lancaster.

But in a busy world with people filled with busy lives, we believe the Parks Board owed more to the community than just a "hey, we'll be making this decision later ... hope to see you then."

Keep in mind the public's interest in this idea was at its apex in the late summer and early fall. In fact, Mount Pleasant was illuminated during the county fair in October, and that was the last formal mention of the matter. That's nearly six months.

More: Lancaster to light Mount Pleasant twice during Fairfield County Fair

More: Public mixed on plan to light Mount Pleasant

So, with no particular nod to the citizens who voiced their opinions on the matter, the board voted.  Reaction to that vote has been mixed. Some are upset at the decision, others are pleased. Still, others felt as if the board was less than transparent.

First, let's address what all public bodies have to do by law. The Ohio Revised Code is pretty clear. The law says, according to the Ohio Attorney General's Sunshine Law manual, "The public body’s notice rule must provide for “notice that is consistent and actually reaches the public." Further, it's stated that regular meetings must have a reasonable method to inform the public of their monthly meetings.

If you go to the city's website and search the agenda and minutes for "Parks Board," you'll find none. In fact, go to the site and search the entire site for anything related to the Parks Board and you'll see merely a handful of items related to meetings, including a change of the February meeting, but no reference to the March meeting at all. 

Finally, go to the website and search for the board meeting dates and times of future meetings and you still will not find them, because they are not posted. In fact, we can't find a single place where the March 14 meeting was published, nor could we see a notice that the Mount Pleasant issue was up for a vote. Maybe it's on the Parks and Recreation Facebook page? Nope.

Does that comply with the law? Is the notification provided "consistent" and does it actually reach the public? 

We argue that it falls short. So, if an intrepid Lancaster resident wanted to challenge the legality of the board's 2-1 decision on the lighting of Mount Pleasant, they might be able to do so because the meetings are not adequately publicized. Will it change the outcome? Probably not. Is it worth the effort? We believe all efforts to push the government to follow the rules are worthwhile.

Listen, this might not be a big deal to the board. It may not involve a significant expenditure of public money, but if the Parks Board and the city analyze this decision, they should admit they could have been much more transparent than they were before casting a vote. Mistrust follows a lack of transparency.

We're told the board meets the second Wednesday of each month. The next move is yours, Lancaster residents. Make your voices heard.

Cincinnati City Council: Lawsuit says 'cabal' held secret 'rogue' meetings over Mayor John Cranley's ouster of City Manager Harry Black

From The Cincinnati Enquirer

A local government watchdog alleged in a court filing Monday that five members of Cincinnati City Council held illegal, secret meetings via text and e-mail to discuss their position on the mayor's request that the city manager resign.

Council Members P.G. Sittenfeld, Wendell Young, Chris Seelbach, Greg Landsman and Tamaya Dennard -- a majority of the nine council members -- talked in person and via text and email when issuing two press releases about their position on Mayor John Cranley's request that City Manager Harry Black resign.

The first release laid out a process for investigating the mayor's claims, which the lawsuit alleges is city business that must be done in a public manner.

"This action results from the conduct of a cabal of five rogue members of the Cincinnati City Council, whereby this cabal has conducted illegal meetings of a majority of (council), attempting to decide matters of great public import behind closed doors and in secret communications and subverting the public's right to know and understand the actions of its public officials," the lawsuit alleges.

The lawsuit was filed in Hamilton County Common Pleas Court by Mark Miller as a citizen. He is a treasurer for theCoalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (Coast)  and is represented by Brian Shrive, of the Finney Law Firm. Chris Finney is a Coast founder.Shrive, in the last Council election, donated $1,100 to Councilman Christopher Smitherman's campaign. Smitherman supports Black resigning with the larger settlement.

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Columbus’ superintendent search method proper, school boards group says

From The Columbus Dispatch

Ohio Auditor Dave Yost said the Columbus Board of Education violated the state’s Open Meetings Act when it made decisions about job candidates in private meetings.

But the Ohio School Boards Association disagrees. In fact, it trains and advises districts across the state that it’s legal to make certain hiring decisions, such as narrowing a field to a smaller list of finalists, in closed “executive sessions” as long as the final vote to hire is made in public.

“The process used by the Columbus City School board is not unique to the district, and is used by many of our members to narrow their lists of candidates,” Sara Clark, chief legal counsel for the association, said in a letter to Yost dated last Friday. “It is my belief that this process is lawful and appropriate” under the Ohio Open Meetings Act.

Clark points to a 1985 decision by the state’s Third District Court of Appeals that the Tiffin City Council didn’t violate the Open Meetings Act when it narrowed a list of potential appointments to fill a vacant council seat during a closed meeting.

“That’s not what the law says,” Yost said Tuesday in response to Clark’s letter, just hours after the Columbus Board of Education voted unanimously to scrap its superintendent search and start over on Yost’s advice that they had violated state law by making decisions about job candidates in closed meetings, and could be personally financially responsible.

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Dispatch public records requests connected with strange saga of Brice mayor who hired relatives for village posts

From The Columbus Dispatch

The village of Brice has a new mayor after the former mayor agreed to resign to settle multiple violations of state ethics laws related to hiring her relatives.

Amy M. Evans resigned March 7, in accordance with a settlement agreement she reached with Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O’Brien in lieu of prosecution. Cathy Compton, who was president of the village council, is now the mayor, and plans to run in the November election to retain the position, Julia Evans, the village fiscal officer, said Monday.

Julia Evans is the mother of Amy Evans, who had been the village mayor since July 11, 2013.

According to the settlement agreement, an Ohio Ethics Commission investigation found that a month after taking office as mayor, Amy Evans suggested that the village council appoint her mother the fiscal officer. Then, in 2014, Amy Evans participated in the hiring of her cousin, Sara Shaw. Shaw was hired to make copies of village records in response to public records requests by The Columbus Dispatch and WSYX-TV (Channel 6 news). Amy Evans signed the $500 payment made to her cousin for the work, the investigation found.

The investigation also found that while still on village council on July 11, 2013 before she became mayor on the same day to replace an interim mayor who resigned, Amy Evans “may have voted” to appoint her sister, Lori Runyon, who was the mayor’s court clerk at the time, to a vacant village council seat. The investigation found that Evans signed her sister’s checks for the court clerk job.

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Cleveland Heights councilman introduces legislation to ban secret meetings

From The Plain Dealer

Councilman Kahlil Seren introduced legislation Monday that would do away with executive sessions called for reasons that fall outside Ohio's Open Meetings laws.

The City Charter has already withstood legal challengesto the longstanding policy of not taking minutes for "Committee of the Whole" meetings, when courts determined that "home rule" takes precedence over the "Sunshine Law."

But even after winning in court, council and the administration recently decided to start recording those meetings, as well as to take "summary minutes" in an effort to provide more civic transparency.

Seren believes that another simple step toward that goal would be repealing the 1986 ordinance that allows council and other boards and commissions to hold executive sessions "in retreat" to discuss "general plans for the future, or general issues before the city."

That differs from the Open Meetings law, which prescribes that only certain issues can to be discussed in closed session, such as litigation, personnel and property acquisition.

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Vindicator editorial: Time to lift veil of secrecy from Ohio’s jobs initiative

Editorial from The Vindicator

For seven years, JobsOhio, the state’s privatized economic- development endeavor, has been shielded from public view, much to the displeasure of open-government advocates.

Indeed, the media have consistently challenged arguments presented by the proponents of secrecy and have demanded accountability and transparency on behalf of the taxpayers.

Not surprisingly, such demands have fallen on deaf ears.

But that could change if a proposal being pushed by Ohio Auditor David Yost, a Republican, is adopted by the GOP-controlled General Assembly and signed into law by Republican Gov. John R. Kasich.

Yost, a candidate for Ohio attorney general this year and a former journalist, is seeking a one-time performance audit of JobsOhio, which was created by statute in 2011 to replace the Ohio Department of Development.

Kasich and others contend that a private organization unencumbered by state laws governing public agencies is needed to spur job-creation in Ohio.

But without access to JobsOhio’s records, the media and the public have no way of confirming the claims of success that have been made over the years.

We also have no insight into how much money is actually spent on salaries and benefits for the 81 employees.

As the Columbus Dispatch reported March 12, JobsOhio continues to lowball the amounts it pays employees, including 34 individuals who earn at least six-figure annual salaries.

Here’s what the Dispatch wrote:

“In its 2017 filings with the state, Gov. John Kasich’s privatized economic development agency again reported employees’ taxable income – which does not include salary diverted to non-taxable retirement contributions and health insurance costs – instead of their gross income.

“State law requires the nonprofit to report ‘total compensation.’ But its practice of reporting only taxable income serves to understate employee earnings by thousands of dollars each.

 

 

“The filing for 2017 shows that John Minor Jr., JobsOhio’s president and chief executive officer, received a raise of $32,256, or 7 percent, last year to $516,458.

“Yet, his actual compensation likely is significantly higher.”

No names

There’s another problem with Jobs-Ohio’s so-called disclosure of compensation. There are no names on the chart. The list reveals only the job title and salary for each position.

That is why state Auditor Yost’s push for a performance audit is timely and necessary. The Republican majority in the General Assembly will stand accused of supporting secrecy in state government if it does not enact the necessary legislation.

“I really looked askance at its lack of accountability,” Yost said of the Jobs-Ohio program. It is exempt from open records and ethics laws, and its books are not publicly audited.

But officials involved in the program have long insisted the nonprofit adheres to the highest standard of accountability, transparency, ethical conduct and responsible business practices.

Yet, the day-to-day operations are conducted in darkness.

The proponents of privatization of Ohio’s job-creation effort continue to argue that no public dollars are used for the program. But as we have pointed out in previous editorials, Ohioans contribute millions of dollars in grants awarded to JobsOhio, and state liquor profits are used to attract private financing.

According to the Dispatch, the state auditor’s desire to “check the numbers” is endorsed by the Ohio chapter of Americans for Prosperity, funded by the conservative billionaire Koch brothers.

The newspaper quoted the chapter’s state director, Micah Derry, as saying, “Since most of JobsOhio’s activities are shielded from public view, a performance audit is a welcome first step toward providing greater transparency for what we believe to be a flawed program.”

We are well aware that economic development cannot always occur under the glare of public scrutiny and that secrecy is often demanded by prospective job creators.

But having a private organization operating under the umbrella of state government is bad public policy.

We opposed the creation of JobsOhio from the outset and that put us at odds with the Kasich administration.

The governor now has the chance to lift the veil of secrecy by supporting Yost’s push for a performance audit.

The state auditor should be given the authority to seek requests for proposals from national auditing firms and then to select the one he believes would give Ohioans the best review of JobsOhio.