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Emailed votes improper

St. Clairsville residents deserve better governance than they are getting from City Council.

It appears that on Monday, council violated the Ohio Open Meetings Act by casting votes to appoint two members to the recreation board via email. During a meeting conducted by teleconference, members cast what amounted to secret ballots by sending their votes in by email. While the result of the vote was announced — council reappointed incumbents Alicia Freeman and Diane Schubert to the board — those listening to the meeting had no way to know which council members had voted for which candidates.

The “2021 Ohio Sunshine Laws Manual” published by Attorney General Dave Yost’s office states: “A public body must make all of its meetings open to the public at all times. Secret ballots, whispering of public business, and ’round-robin’ discussions are all prohibited under the openness requirement.”

Council President Jim Velas, who called for the emailed vote, said he made the decision in an effort to avoid confusion. He said the teleconference format council is using for meetings during the COVID-19 pandemic is “not the most ideal,” adding that he had consulted with Law Director Elizabeth Glick about having members email their votes.

Velas said the emails will be saved and made available upon request, and they will be read aloud during the next council meeting on April 19.

“It’s not a violation of the Sunshine Law because that information is accessible to everybody,” Velas said.

We believe, though, that he received bad advice from Glick, who did not respond to our calls seeking comment.

We also consulted attorney Michael Shaheen, who serves as solicitor for three local villages. We agree with his assessment that emailing votes is “a terrible practice.”

“It’s not in the spirit of the open meeting requirements,” Shaheen told our reporter. “It begs for potential conflict/litigation as it avoids the transparency associated with a public meeting.”

Because the vote was conducted in a manner that seems to be inconsistent with the law, council members on April 19 should correct that error. Council should rescind the action and vote again in an open and transparent way, making it clear to the public which members vote for which candidates.

Council also should make meetings more accessible to residents, who now participate in a listen-only mode. After more than a year of dealing with COVID-19 restrictions and precautions, surely council can at least find an online platform that will allow residents to see and hear what is going on and be able to provide input when appropriate.

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