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Ohios Sunshine Law
January 13, 2011 - Michael Palmer
Ohio’s Open Records and Open Meetings laws, collectively known as the “Sunshine Laws,” give Ohioans access to government meetings and records. The Ohio Attorney General’s Office helps public officials and citizens understand their rights and responsibilities under these laws.
These laws were passed to grant the public to access of government meetings and records, but unfortunately, out of ignorance or blatant disregard, they are ignored by many area school boards and boards of county commissioners.
Read Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine's web site and you will find many informational fact sheets.
What is a meeting, as applicable in the Ohio Open Meetings Act?
In order for the Open Meetings Act to apply, the members of a public body must be meeting to discuss the public’s business. A meeting is a prearranged gathering of a majority of the members of a public body for the purpose of discussing public business. For example, if there are five members of a school board, and only two get together to discuss public business, this is not a meeting and the Open Meetings Act would not require it to be open to the public. However, if three members gather to discuss public business, this is a meeting and the Open Meetings Act would require it to be open to the public. Also, if there is a meeting, the public body must give notice to the public.
Open Meetings 101 – Is this a “meeting?”
At 8 a.m. every Tuesday, you can count on seeing two members of Brighton’s three-person village council sharing breakfast at the Cup’a Sunshine Coffee Shop. Sometimes the conversation wanders into a discussion of council business. Is this a “meeting?”
The three members of the seven-member Open Government Commission who make up the body’s Finance Committee meet on Wednesday evenings to review financial issues. A fourth commission member who is not on the committee attends a meeting to listen to discussion of a particular topic. Is this a “meeting” of the Open Government Commission?
The members of the Marigold City School Board decide to hold a new-member orientation and planning retreat to brainstorm about future projects they might undertake. No action will be taken; just discussion. Is this a “meeting?”
Ohio’s Open Meetings Act defines a “meeting” as (1) a prearranged discussion (2) of public business (3) by a majority of the members of a public body. The law enables people to witness what government officials are doing on the public’s behalf.
While the law is to be read broadly to require the members of government bodies to take official action and deliberate only in open meetings,
1) courts generally have not interpreted it to prohibit informal conversations.
2) In the first scenario above, the Brighton village council members who make up a majority when they get together for their standing breakfast appointment may touch on council business without violating the law if it is clear that they are not deliberating or conducting public business in secret.
3)When a public body creates a committee, the sub-group is usually considered a “public body” in its own right, with its own majority and the same obligations the primary body has to provide notice, ensure openness and keep minutes. Thus, the Finance Committee in this example is a public body and is holding a meeting. Members of the primary public body who do not belong to the committee are not explicitly prohibited from attending committee meetings, but participation is key. In the second scenario above, the curious commission member who sits with other observers and does not participate or influence the committee members in any way most likely does not create a majority of the full Open Government Commission. On the other hand, if the commissioner attends as a guest, joins committee members at the table and takes part in the discussion, she may create a majority of the commission itself, triggering separate obligations for notice, openness and minutes for the full Open Government Commission.
A “meeting” by another name—“retreat,” “workshop,” “planning session”—is still a “meeting” for purposes of the Open Meetings Act if a majority of members gather for a prearranged discussion of the public’s business.
Once the new members of the Marigold School Board take office and gather with the rest of the group to talk about their new responsibilities and long-range plans, the public has the right to hear what they are saying, even if no voting or other action occurs. By its terms, with narrow exceptions, the Open Meetings Act requires the members of a public body to discuss and deliberate on official business only in open meetings.
A COMMON QUESTION:
Can a majority of the members of our board, committee or subcommittee gather without violating the Sunshine Law?
Yes. If there is not a prearranged discussion of the business of the board, committee or subcommittee, it would not be a meeting as defined by the statute. A majority of board members could, for example, get together on social occasions, ride together to an event, or attend a seminar without violating the law, so long as discussions of board business do not take place. The same is true of the members of a committee or subcommittee.
Common examples include holiday parties, graduation ceremonies and candidate forums, where there is no prearranged discussion of board business by a majority of its members.
I would like to answer more questions about this subject but I do not want you to know what I am going to say and put it in your own blog, so I now move we go into executive session to discuss personnel matters, “So Moved.“ Any discussion? All in favor?
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