Township hotbed for public meetings issues July 27, 2013
CLEARCREEK TWP., Warren County
Clearcreek Twp. trustees are headed back to court in a lawsuit accusing them of “regularly and systematically” meeting in violation of public meetings law.
Separately, a local lawmaker is moving forward with a bill in part designed to prevent elected officials in Ohio from holding “pre-meeting meetings” like those forming the basis for the lawsuit.
At issue is when private discussions between elected officials violate Ohio open-meetings law.
Township resident Jack Chrisman’s lawyers filed the lawsuit in July 2011, claiming Trustee Ed Wade and former Trustee Dr. Gregory McDonald met with former Trustee Dennis Lamb in November 2009 and February 2010 without notifying the public.
Chrisman claimed the meetings were attempts to convince Lamb to resign before the end of his term, opening the seat for McDonald.
After Lamb retired, McDonald did not run for his seat. Trustee Jason Gabbard won the election, defeating four other candidates, including Chrisman and Russell Jones.
State Sen. Shannon Jones, a Republican who is married to Russell Jones, plans to seek a hearing with the Ohio Senate’s State Government Oversight & Reform Committee on S.B. 93, a bill calling for changes that would bar privately held, pre-arranged meetings by elected officials.
“We have to err on the side of the public’s right to know and work around those practical challenges. That’s how you preserve the public’s engagement in their government, that’s how you preserve their confidence in their government,” she said.
Last week, lawyers for the trustees and township resident Chrisman scheduled a final hearing on Dec. 20 and a two day trial on Jan. 30-Jan. 31 in Warren County Common Pleas Court to determine whether the meetings — which the trustees and administrators admit to holding — violate Ohio Sunshine Law.
The 12th District Court of Appeals ordered Judge James Flannery to hold a trial to decide whether the meetings were more than informal gatherings limited to gathering information, rather than sessions where decisions were made beyond the eyes of the public.
“Reasonable minds could differ as to whether the discussions at the pre-meeting meetings were prearranged and extended beyond information-gathering and into deliberations,” the 12th District Court of Appeals said in its decision.
The trustees and their lawyer have said they respect the need for open meetings and records. However, they say the standards set by Chrisman’s lawsuit and Jones’ bill will inhibit local officials taking care of government business.
“I think that they’re overzealous,” lawyer John Smith said, pointing to the cost of the Chrisman lawsuit in time and legal fees.“It’s done nothing but suck money, life and time out.”
The 12th District has yet to rule on a dispute over a ruling ordering Chrisman to pay more than $2,000 for bringing frivolous claims as part of the lawsuit.
Clearcreek Twp. pre-meetings
Earlier this month, during public comments at a special meeting, Gabbard indicated the trustees discussed public business privately.
Referring to Trustee Ed Wade, Gabbard said,“You and I have discussed this individually” during comments at a July 15 meeting on whether to place a fire levy on November ballots.
The trustees — and other Ohio public officials — will continue to meet privately on public business, buoyed by rulings like Flannery’s in the Chrisman case, lawyer Christopher Finney said.
“They are completely confident the judge will be consistent with his prior rulings,” said Finney — who with lawyer Curt Hartman — has brought lawsuits claiming public meeting and public records violations by local governments around Ohio.
“The courts have created this artificial differentiation between discussion and deliberation,” Finney said.
Wade and Lamb testified that the meetings fell short of deliberations. Trustee Cathy Anspach and Fiscal Officer Linda Oda have sided with Chrisman in the lawsuit.