Court orders Cuyahoga County to release video of corrections officer's attack on naked inmate

From The Plain Dealer

An Ohio court has sided with and ordered Cuyahoga County to release body camera video of a jail supervisor using excessive force on a naked inmate.

Lawyers for Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish did not back up their claims that a video that led to the firing of Corporal Brendan Johnson should be exempt from release, Jeffrey Clark, a special master assigned by the Ohio Court of Claims to rule on the dispute, wrote in a 29-page decision handed down Wednesday.

Clark did allow the county to blur images of the inmate's breasts, underwear and computer screens and writings that detail her medical history, and to redact 14 seconds of audio from the video. But Clark wrote that the redactions must be made in a way that does not obscure Johnson's actions, rejecting the county's claims that the entire video was not a public record.

Dennis Hetzel, president of the Ohio News Media Association, called the opinion a "well-reasoned slap-down" of the extreme arguments that the county used to try to keep the video away from the public.

"It's a good decision in terms of telling local government that when you take an extreme view of the open records law, you're not going to win," Hetzel told in a phone interview Thursday.

The ruling is also an important victory for government transparency and offers a well-reasoned and delicate answer to a difficult question that governments and courts must grapple with as law-enforcement body cameras become ubiquitous pieces of evidence in court cases across the country, Hetzel said.

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AEP gets second chance to meet notice requirement

From The Columbus Dispatch

American Electric Power is getting a do-over in the form of a public hearing scheduled for Feb. 12.

The Public Utilities Commission of Ohio said the hearing will make up for the fact that AEP did not file proper notice of hearings that took place last April for a proposal to change electricity rates through 2024.

“While it is apparent that many consumers were aware of the hearings, the attorney examiner finds it necessary to conduct another public hearing to ensure the public is notified of these proceedings and afforded an opportunity to provide testimony,” according to a filing made Monday by a PUCO administrative law judge.

The lack of notice, which by law must be published as an ad in local newspapers, meant that the PUCO and AEP were violating state rules for this type of rate plan.

AEP notified the commission of the error and asked for the notice rule to be waived. Consumer advocates objected to this.

As an alternative, AEP said it could hold an extra hearing, which is the option the utility has chosen.

AEP has said the rate plan would lead to a first-year increase of about $1 per month for households.

The hearing is scheduled for 6 p.m. Feb. 12 in the Cardinal Classroom at the Ohio History Center, 800 E. 17th Ave.

Ohio Supreme Court: FirstEnergy records improperly shielded from public

From The Columbus Dispatch

The Ohio Supreme Court has found that state utility regulators went too far in shielding documents from public view in a case dealing with FirstEnergy’s purchases of renewable-energy credits.

Consumer and environmental advocates had pushed for release of the documents, saying they would help the public understand why regulators found that FirstEnergy had overpaid by $43 million for the credits in transactions that may have involved an affiliated company, FirstEnergy Solutions.

“If a utility is misspending customers’ money, it should not be able to keep that a secret,” said Madeline Fleisher, an attorney in the Columbus office of the Environmental Law and Policy Center, reacting to the decision released Wednesday. Her group argued before the court that the documents should be public.

But this was a mixed result for consumers.

The court also found that FirstEnergy does not need to repay the $43 million because of a precedent that bars retroactive changes to utility rates. This part of the decision rejects the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio’s order to refund the money.

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Judge denies attempt by city of Alliance to dismiss public meeting lawsuit

From The Alliance Review

The city of Alliance’s attempt to have a public meetings lawsuit dismissed was denied by Stark County Common Pleas judge Taryn L. Heath on Tuesday. 

Alliance requested a summary judgment — which seeks a ruling by a court without a trial — in a lawsuit filed by a city man, who contends an executive session in Alliance City Council was a violation of the Ohio Sunshine Law. 

Heath noted in the five-page judgment entry that she “cannot, and will not, accept (the city’s) contention that a Court must blindly accept the meeting minutes of a public body because they have been approved — particularly in the face of evidence that they are incorrect.” 

In April 2017, days after city council’s regular meeting, attorney Steven Okey filed the court action on behalf of resident Leslie J. Young, citing public meetings law violations after council recessed into an executive session without giving the reason. The complaint alleged this violated the Ohio Revised Code rules, pointing to a video of the meeting posted by the Alliance Review on its YouTube channel. 

“The video accurately records that no member of council cited any purpose (for the executive session),” Okey wrote in a 12-page memorandum Nov. 13 responding to the city’s motion for summary judgment against his case. “Yet the statutory purpose (personnel) conveniently appears in the minutes.” 

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Emails suggest Columbus superintendent vetting process not so transparent

From The Columbus Dispatch

The Columbus Board of Education has not only been interviewing a secret list of candidates to become the next district superintendent, but it has added names not on the list of 19 applicants it released in December.

The board also has been allowing a consultant to keep documents to avoid the Ohio Public Records Act and has been making official board decisions in potentially illegal private meetings, district emails — released to The Dispatch under a records request — reveal.

After promising a transparent process, the board scheduled interviews for seven potential superintendent candidates that occurred between Jan. 8-10. According to emails, they included: current Acting Superintendent John Stanford; former district deputy superintendent Keith Bell, who later took a post in suburban Cleveland; Errick Greene, chief of schools in Tulsa, Oklahoma; and David James, superintendent of Akron City Schools.

But the board also held get-togethers with three candidates whom the district did not name when it released the list of applicants in December. The board called those “meetings” rather than “interviews,” the term they used for the four candidates who actually applied.

The district released applications from new candidates, some with dates before the Dec. 8 deadline but who weren’t on the list of candidates that the board released Dec. 11. New applicants include: Robert Haworth, superintendent of Elkhart Community Schools in Indiana; Michael Conran, superintendent of Global Education Excellence in Ann Arbor, Michigan; Corwin Robinson, principal of St. Tammany Parish Schools in Mandeville, Louisiana; and Jesse Pratt, academic improvement officer for Indianapolis Public Schools.

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Midvale Mayor says newspaper coverage ‘disrupting’ village's public meetings

From The Times Reporter

... (Mayor) 

Cross said he intends to use his office to bring order to village affairs, including meetings of Village Council, over which he presides. Anyone who disrupts the meeting will be removed from the building by a police officer, he said.

"I don't think that anybody, be it a reporter, a citizen, a police chief, a whoever-it-might-be, has any business coming into a council meeting in any village creating disruptions in a council meeting," he said. "The village cannot get no kind of agenda done because of this Police Department thing."

Newspaper labeled as disruptive

He made reference to Times-Reporter coverage of the police issue when taking about activities he considers disruptive.

"I feel as though if the newspaper is going to keep putting big articles on the front page of the newspaper, I feel as though that maybe I need to get another reporter in there, or another newspaper in there," Cross said as he held the business card of the Times-Reporter staff writer who was interviewing him. "Because to me, it's disrupting my council meeting.

"If I can do anything about it legally, or whatever I have to do, if I can get some cooperation from The Times-Reporter, or whoever you work for or whatever, I'm going to try to do that.

"I don't know if I can keep the press out of my meetings. I don't want to do that. But for all this disruption that it's caused this town, with this part-time and full-time Police Department  thing, I feel as though in my ... council meetings, it's a big disruption to me — from village people, from the newspaper, from everybody involved in it."

Ohio's Open Meetings Law, also known as the Sunshine Law, requires meetings of public bodies to be open to the public, including representatives of the news media, with only certain exceptions.

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Short list of superintendent candidates a secret, Columbus school board says

From The Columbus Dispatch

The Columbus Board of Education has a short list of candidates recommended to become the district’s next superintendent — but it doesn’t want you to know who they are.

“This isn’t ‘American Idol’ where contestants are ranked and then cut off a list one-by-one,” board President Gary Baker said in an email Wednesday. “This is an important responsibility the Board takes seriously, and we respect every one of those highly professional individuals who have expressed an interest and will provide them the appropriate courtesy.”

Despite repeated requests by The Dispatch and three days of candidate interviews in closed sessions that wrapped up Wednesday evening, the district won’t say with whom it held interviews.

The district, which said it would be transparent about the selection, said no records on whom the district met and when even exist, despite the fact the board needed to coordinate with people potentially traveling to Columbus from across the nation, typically affording them taxpayer-reimbursed transportation, lodging and meals.

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As Cleveland hides Amazon bid, other cities share details, some unwillingly

From The Plain Dealer

While Cleveland leaders refuse to share with the public the details of the public subsidies they are dangling to bring Amazon's second headquarters to the Northeast Ohio, some of their counterparts in competing cities have shared details of their respective bids with their taxpayers.

Some have done so without the blessing of the business and political leaders controlling the bid process. In other cases, politicians have remembered who elected them and made details available. Some have redacted parts of the bid, but nonetheless offered far more than anything Cleveland's business and civic leaders think you deserve.

Those details from other cities are instructive because they indicate how much taxpayers are being asked to kick in. We're talking billions of dollars, in one case. Of course, Northeast Ohio taxpayers aren't being asked anything. Their tax dollars are being pledged in secret.

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Media questions prompt joint task force on Dayton schools to cancel meeting

From The Dayton Daily News

The new Facilities Task Force studying potential closure of Dayton Public Schools buildings canceled its initial meeting Tuesday morning after the members had already arrived.

At issue was a disagreement between Task Force members and local media about whether the meeting was open to the public under Ohio’s open meetings law.

RELATED: Task force to study potential school closures

Reporters from the Dayton Daily News and WHIO-TV, plus local activist and blogger David Esrati, arrived early for the 9:30 a.m. meeting, and were allowed to set up cameras and tables.

But as the meeting was about to start, DPS spokeswoman Marcia Bonhart asked the media to leave, saying the event was not open to the public. A Dayton Daily News reporter immediately presented a letter suggesting the meeting qualified as an open meeting under Ohio law.

Acting DPS Superintendent Elizabeth Lolli, Dayton City Manager Shelley Dickstein and Task Force co-chairs Mohamed Al-Hamdani and Jeff Mims scanned the document, then told the media they believed the meeting was closed to the public.

Charlie Russo, research professor of law at the University of Dayton, said the Task Force’s attempt to meet in private did not seem to fit the requirements of Ohio’s open meetings law.

“The spirit of the law, not just in Ohio but elsewhere, is that public business should be the business of the public. People should know what’s going on,” Russo said. He acknowledged that there are some exceptions allowing private meeting. “But none of those exceptions applied. I don’t believe they made the right call.”

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Dispatch Editorial: Think before saying 'no'

Columbus Dispatch editorial

For central Ohioans, the $26,000 legal bill the Solid Waste Authority of Central Ohio owes for fighting a public-records request adds insult to injury: First SWACO tried to keep public records away from the public, and now the public gets stuck paying for it.

And the worst of it is, the public still doesn’t know why a private yard-waste company was allowed free dumping of an astounding amount of garbage — enough to ordinarily have run up tipping fees of nearly $700,000 — at SWACO’s publicly owned landfill.

That’s why The Dispatch demanded to see emails that went between SWACO employees last May, when the newspaper ran a story by reporter Bill Bush revealing that Kurtz Brothers, the Groveport company that SWACO pays to take the yard waste collected from central Ohio households, dumped nearly 800 truckloads over a six-month period without payment.

Kurtz Brothers said its 2005 yard-waste contract with SWACO allows it to dump, at no charge, the odd bits of garbage — pop cans and plastic bags and such — that inevitably get mixed in with loads of yard waste. Over the years, Kurtz typically dumped a few dozen such loads per year.

When that turned into hundreds in 2016, Kurtz claimed that the extraordinary influx was all “foreign material” that it had plucked from yard waste and allowed to build up on its property over the years. Experts are skeptical that anywhere near that much garbage could have come from a decade’s worth of yard waste.

SWACO officials said they were concerned about the dumping, yet couldn’t explain why the public landfill allowed it to continue for so long.

Clearly, every central Ohioan whose trash fees (paid through private haulers or through municipal taxes) support SWACO had an interest in knowing what was going on. When SWACO refused to provide emails without redactions, The Dispatch went to the Ohio Court of Claims, employing a year-old mechanism that allows anyone denied public records to seek mediation.

Rather than release the emails, SWACO lawyered up. It claimed that the emails are exempt from public-records law and argued they are subject to attorney-client privilege because the agency’s in-house attorney had been copied on them.

Simply involving an attorney doesn’t make a conversation privileged; public records can be withheld for attorney-client privilege only when the discussion involves a pending or imminent lawsuit — suing someone or being sued. That wasn’t the case with the SWACO emails.

The Court of Claims public-records appeal, created by state statute in 2016, has given any member of the public an easy and inexpensive way to challenge a government body that denies a request for public records. A $25 filing fee, no lawyer required, triggers a process that begins with mediation and can elevate to formal hearings and a court ruling.

About 90 cases have been filed and, so far, more than half have resulted in Ohioans getting access to records that bureaucrats initially denied.

Open-government advocates say it’s prodding governments to think twice before denying records requests improperly. If SWACO had done that, it could have saved central Ohio taxpayers $26,000.