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.