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."