Ohio’s new state auditor wants to make it easier and cheaper to challenge government officials for illegally holding secret meetings.
Auditor Keith Faber is calling to expand the state’s relatively new mediation system for public-records disputes so that it also applies to complaints of open-meeting violations. Faber referenced a recent lawsuit, filed by a conservative activist organization, that accused five Cincinnati City Council members of illegally texting about public business. City taxpayers there are expected to pay a $90,000 legal bill in connection with the case after a judged ruled against the city, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer.
“With an experience like you just had in Cincinnati, I think you can see the need to have a speedy, efficient and affordable process to resolve those kinds of claims,” Faber said.
The public-records mediation system, which started in 2016, allows citizens to file complaints, paying only a $25 filing fee, if they think government officials are illegally withholding public records. The complaints are then routed directly to a mediator with the state Court of Claims, bypassing the typical lengthy and expensive legal process.
The mediation system has been used more than 200 times since it was created, including recently by cleveland.com and local media outlets to force local government officials to release records detailing Cleveland’s failed bid to attract the Amazon HQ2 project.
Faber said the Amazon case is the type of thing state lawmakers had in mind when they designed the public-records mediation program. He said records of tax incentives and other perks governments offer to try to attract businesses should be public, once the project is over.
Cleveland officials, after initially not responding to a records request by a WEWS Channel 5 reporter, unsuccessfully tried to argue that details of the Amazon bid should be kept secret. Sharing them, city officials argued, would put them at a competitive disadvantage in the future.
A state mediator disagreed, and ordered the records to be released last week.
“I think that case shows that you can resolve big, complex, expensive cases cheaply through that process as well,” Faber said.
Faber said Sen. Larry Obhof, the Republican leader of the Ohio Senate, views expanding the mediation system to apply to open-meeting violations as a priority, and is working to introduce a bill soon. The measure is supported by the Ohio News Media Association, which represents state newspapers and other media outlets.
In Ohio, government officials are required to publicly advertise all public meetings. Local legislative bodies like city councils, school boards and county commissions are forbidden from meeting privately if a majority of that body attends, with some exceptions.
Faber, a Republican who took office last month, also announced that his office will begin scoring local governments on their compliance with public-records law during their routine state audits.