Attorney: Geauga Park District did not violate Sunshine Laws

From The Chagrin Valley Times

An attorney argued Tuesday that the Geauga Park District Board of Commissioners did not violate Ohio’s Sunshine Laws at their meeting last month when the board allegedly discussed in executive session a resident’s request to speak at the meeting.

Todd C. Hicks, an attorney with Thrasher, Dinsmore and Dolan and the Burton village solicitor, briefed the board on a 5th District Court of Appeals decision to uphold a trial court’s ruling that Bolivar Village Council did not violate Ohio’s Open Meeting Laws, also known as Sunshine Laws, when the council discussed a resident’s request for public comment in executive session.

The facts in that case, he said, are similar to allegations of sunshine law violations against the park board stemming from the board’s August meeting.

On Aug. 8, Protect Geauga Parks President Kathryn Hanratty sent an emailed request for public comment to the three park commissioners and Executive Director John Oros. At the Aug. 15 board meeting, the board went into executive session to discuss the purchase of property. When the board returned from executive session, they said they had nothing to report, and later in the meeting, Board President Andrej Lah stated that the board would not allow Ms. Hanratty to speak. Protect Geauga Parks has been critical of the district’s elimination of public comment at their meetings.

According to Ms. Hanratty, she asked Mr. Lah after the meeting when her request had been discussed, and Mr. Lah responded that her request had been briefly discussed in executive session.

“That’s not the reason they went into executive session, but it’s a violation of Sunshine Laws,” Ms. Hanratty said following the Aug. 15 meeting. “It’s not something they can discuss privately and it’s a fairly big decision to make without allowing the public to know why you made it.”

Similarly, on May 19, 2014, Bolivar Village Council voted to go into executive session, and prior to adjourning Irvin W. Huth asked if the public would be permitted to speak after the executive session, according to court documents. Bolivar Mayor Rebecca Hubble advised that the general consensus was no, but that she would let council make that decision after executive session. Following the executive session, Mayor Hubble announced that public comment would not be allowed.

On May 18, 2016, Mr. Huth filed a lawsuit alleging the village council had violated sunshine laws, and the trial court dismissed each count of Mr. Huth’s complaints on March 6, 2018. Mr. Huth filed an appeal, and on Aug. 27, 2018, appellate judges Patricia A. Delaney, Craig R. Baldwin and Earle E. Wise Jr. upheld the trial court’s decision that no violation had occurred.

“Essentially (the court of appeals said) to have a sunshine law violation, you have to have two things. You have to have deliberations in an executive session, but the second part you need is some official action on the part of the public body, meaning the passing of a rule, an ordinance or something else. And what both courts found was that a decision to not allow public comment, or to allow public comment, does not rise to the level of an ordinance or rule or some other official action. That’s an administrative decision, and therefore no violation occurred, even if that decision was discussed outside of a public meeting or in executive session,” Mr. Hicks said.

In an interview following the meeting, Protect Geauga Parks Trustee Dave Partington, who had not yet reviewed the case cited by Mr. Hicks, said “I don’t see (the Bolivar case) as relevant. Our question is, (the board) had an attorney with them the entire time and you made a decision. And you made a decision in private that’s not appropriate for executive session. (Last month) Mr. Lah said ‘We agreed.’ Well to me, either you held a formal vote or an informal vote, but agreement is agreement and you did this and you didn’t do it in public and you should have.

“This again is a total lack of transparency, and they didn’t have to do it this way,” Mr. Partington said. He continued that Protect Geauga Parks would be reviewing Mr. Hicks’ assessment and the Bolivar case with their attorneys.