More transparency sought for convention, visitors bureaus

From Gongwer

Witnesses warned lawmakers Wednesday that, without transparency, local public officials serving on convention and visitors bureau boards could create incentives for improper behavior.

The comments came as the Senate Ways & Means Committee considered legislation (SB 252) making local officials' right to serve on the boards explicit.

The panel also accepted an amendment that Chairman Sen. John Eklund (R-Chardon) said allows county auditors and municipal fiscal officers to disclose, to a CVB upon request, tax return information of hotels subject to lodging tax.

Micah Derry, state director for Americans for Prosperity - Ohio, said the proposal would "worsen an already perverse set of incentives for politicians to raise taxes to reward special interests" by letting them simultaneously hold positions in government and at visitors' bureaus.

Current law doesn't prevent local officials from serving on the boards of visitors' bureaus that receive tax dollars from hotel taxes, he said. The bureaus can spend that money with little transparency, he added.

"By taking over visitors' bureaus and gaining this ability to spend money without accountability, these local politicians can then direct potentially vast sums of taxpayer money to their political allies and, in a worst case scenario, private business interests, skewing the economic playing field and incentivizing corruption and cronyism," he said.

The proposal doesn't address the problem, and instead protects it as a legal right, he said.

"I urge you to oppose this bill unless it is altered significantly, and to work toward a legislative solution to the nexus of cronyism and unaccountable spending that is enabled by our visitors' bureaus," he said.

Sen. Bill Beagle (R-Tipp City) asked if there are limitations for typical convention bureaus on what they can spend their money on.

Levies are often placed for general purposes, but oversight is often limited, Mr. Derry said.

Sen. Bob Hackett (R-London) said the legislation gives local governments more authority to place additional limitations on local bureaus.

"In some ways the bill is still giving authority to local governments to say, 'We want it to be more restricted,'" he said.

Although Mr. Derry said he believed in providing local flexibility, he said smaller communities with convention and visitors bureaus are often the ones most likely to face perverse incentives for holding both positions.

"This is purely a recognition that a conflict of interest does exist," he said.

In written testimony, Robert "Chip" Hart of Hart Productions in Cincinnati urged lawmakers to bring more transparency to visitors' bureaus.

"I urge this committee to bring about much needed change, transparency, ethics, and above all, honesty by insuring that there is access to allow for oversight of the use of tax money," he wrote. "Therefore, I reassert the request for a convention & visitors bureau to be subject to the Freedom of Information Act for the tax funding it receives when there are board members that are elected officials or their designate or members of a government administration."

Dispatch editorial: Let sun shine when doing the public’s business

Editorial from the Columbus Dispatch

There is a difference between discussion, deliberation and decision — and the distinctions are especially important when it comes to government bodies doing the public’s business.

We hope all manner of public officials in Ohio were paying attention in March when the use of closed sessions poisoned and upended a superintendent search for the Columbus City Schools.

The distinctions can be confusing when a government body — say the Columbus Board of Education — receives conflicting information from different sources, including a membership organization such as the Ohio School Boards Association, which board members and their legal counsel may rely on for advice specific to their responsibilities.

Differences between discussion, deliberation and decision were at the heart of problems that arose in the Columbus school board’s initial search for a superintendent to succeed Dan Good, who retired at the end of December.

That search was scrapped after The Dispatch revealed and State Auditor Dave Yost challenged the board’s use of private executive sessions to consider and cull about two dozen candidates for the job to three finalists before taking official action in an open meeting. The board had announced 19 candidates publicly; and now we know four others were privately considered as well.

As the Columbus school board mounts a new search, we hope any lingering misunderstanding of what Ohio’s Sunshine Laws require for the conduct of public business have now been resolved — and that other Ohio school boards that might have been following similar misguided practices are now on notice as to the law’s demand for public decision-making.

The auditor had advised the school board — just before it planned to name the next superintendent — that decisions made illegally in closed sessions could subject board members to personal financial liability, making it clear the process was tainted.

Conversely, the school boards association had advised its members that weeding out candidates in closed sessions was fine. In fact, that process “is used by many of our members to narrow their lists of candidates,” OSBA Chief Legal Counsel Sara Clark said in a letter to the state auditor, disputing his interpretation of the Sunshine Law restrictions on executive sessions.

The association cited a 1985 case where Tiffin City Council considered candidates for a vacancy in private, then decided between two candidates in open session. Now, Clark said, “we are providing boards that utilize OSBA for their executive searches with information about the position the auditor has taken.”

Cincinnati attorney John C. “Jack” Greiner, considered a Sunshine Law expert by the Ohio News Media Association, agrees that case does not support anything more than deliberation in executive sessions. And Webster’s defines deliberation as “consideration and discussion of alternatives before reaching a decision.”

These distinctions are important as the Columbus school board begins a new search for superintendent.

We hope the Groveport Madison Board of Education and the school board for Westerville City Schools are also paying attention. Groveport is seeking a new superintendent to succeed Bruce Hoover, who resigned in February. Westerville needs a new school treasurer with January’s retirement of Bart Griffith. Thankfully, there has been no indication those districts made decisions in closed sessions.

Yorkville mayor claims village did not break Sunshine Laws

From The Herald-Star

The mayor here said his village is not in violation of the Ohio meeting laws after a village meeting started 30 minutes before its scheduled time and reconvened with a quorum after it passed a motion to adjourn.

Council’s regular meeting was scheduled to begin at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at the village’s municipal building, 139 Market St., Yorkville.

However, the meeting actually began at 6 p.m. Tuesday. It adjourned at about 7 p.m. Four council members — Ron Emerson, Jennifer Murray, Karen Vargo and Linda Mayhugh — and Mayor Blair Closser then drove to attend a council meeting for the village of Tiltonsville at 222 Grandview Ave., Tiltonsville.

According to “Ohio Sunshine Laws 2018: An Open Government Resource Manual,” published by the Ohio Attorney General’s Office, a public meeting is defined as “(1) a prearranged gathering of (2) a majority of the members of a public body (3) for the purpose of discussing public business.”

Also, village council meetings — which are subject to the Ohio Open Meetings Act — “must establish, by rule, a reasonable method that allows the public to determine the time and place of regular meetings,” according to the manual.

The village’s website, www.villageofyorkville.org, indicates all municipal meetings — including the one held Tuesday — start at 6:30 p.m.

Still, the mayor said, the village didn’t change the time or location of the meeting with the intent of violating the law.

“We didn’t do it to hide anything,” said Closser. “We didn’t pass anything until (a newspaper reporter) got there at 6:30.

“I think (the time change) was posted on the front door,” said the mayor.

“I’m not sure if the clerk called The Times Leader to say the time changed. Next time, I will be sure to shoot an e-mail to (the newspaper reporter) or the editor.”

The Ohio Sunshine Law manual also says, “Although the Open Meetings Act does not specifically address where a public body must hold meetings, some authority suggests that a public body must hold meetings in a public meeting place that is within the geographical jurisdiction of the public body.”

But the mayor said the gathering of the majority of the members of Yorkville Council at the Tiltonsville meeting did not violate the law.

“I told council members that if they wanted to, they could head over to Tiltonsville to hear about the plans with Chuck Better,” said Closser after the meeting. “I think it was addressed at the end of the meeting after executive session. Maybe before, but I’m not sure.”

Better, who works with Yorkville Intermodal Terminals LLC, was at the Tiltonsville meeting to discuss plans for building a barging facility that would affect Yorkville and Tiltonsville. But that was after council members had ended their meeting for the night.

“I need a motion to adjourn so that we can get up there to the Tiltonsville meeting,” said Closser during the meeting in Yorkville before a motion and second, followed by a unanimous vote, brought that meeting to a close.

Justices refuse to reconsider Pike County autopsy secrecy ruling

From The Columbus Dispatch

The Ohio Supreme Court has declined to reconsider its decision holding that The Dispatch and The Cincinnati Enquirer are not entitled to copies of the full autopsy reports in the slayings of eight relatives in Pike County.

The court refused to again examine the case by a 5-2 vote, with Justices Terrence O’Donnell and Sharon Kennedy dissenting, in a ruling issued Wednesday.

The court voted 4-3 on Dec. 14 that much of the information in the autopsy reports of eight Pike County slaying victims is not yet public record and cannot be released since the case remains unsolved more than two years after the killings.

The county coroner, with the support of Attorney General Mike DeWine, refused to release unredacted copies of the autopsies, saying their release would harm the investigation.

The newspapers had insisted that public records law contained no provisions shielding the complete autopsy reports from release. Officials had released heavily redacted copies two months after the legal actions were filed.

The legal fight stemmed from the April 22, 2016, shooting deaths of eight people in three trailers and a camper in Pike County.

The majority ruled that the unreleased portions of the autopsy reports could be withheld as confidential law enforcement investigatory documents.

Whistleblower: School used software to get more state money

From The Cincinnati Enquirer

Education regulators are reviewing a whistleblower’s claim that Ohio’s then-largest online charter school intentionally inflated attendance figures tied to its state funding using software it purchased after previous allegations of attendance inflation, The Associated Press has learned.

A former technology employee of the now-shuttered Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow said he told the Ohio Department of Education last year that school officials ordered staff to manipulate student data with software obtained following the state’s demand that it return $60 million in overpayments for the 2015-2016 school year. He also took his claims to Republican Ohio Auditor Dave Yost, whose office said they were incorporated into a financial audit being prepared for release.

The employee spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity for fear of professional repercussions for speaking out. His concerns were first raised in an Aug. 3 email to the state a month before it released its 2017 attendance review of ECOT.

The state challenged ECOT over how it claimed student time using the new software, called ActivTrak, after finding that it duplicated learning hours, according to Education Department spokeswoman Brittany Halpin.

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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.