Meeting should be in public

The Advertiser-Tribune did not receive advance notice of a pre-arranged meeting Thursday between public officials – including all three members of the Seneca County Board of Commissioners. But then, according to County Prosecutor Derek DeVine, it

wasn’t a public meeting.

We disagree.

The meeting was in Tiffin Mayor Aaron Montz’s office and included U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan, commissioners Holly Stacy, Jeff Wagner and Fred Zoeller, and Fostoria Mayor Eric Keckler.

“The number one topic on our plate for discussion is economic development and how we can translate our recent momentum into further development and more jobs for Tiffin and Seneca County,” Montz stated on his Facebook page.

That sounds like a great idea. But the meeting should have been open to the public. Here’s why:

According to “Ohio Sunshine Laws 2012: An Open Government Resource Manual” by Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine and Auditor of State Dave Yost, “In evaluating whether particular gatherings of public officials constituted meetings, several courts of appeals have opined that the Open Meetings Act is intended to apply to situations where there has been actual formal action taken; to wit, formal deliberation concerning the public business.

“Under this analysis, those courts have determined that gatherings strictly of an investigative and information-seeking nature that do not involve actual discussion or deliberation of public business are not meetings for purposes of the Ohio Open Meetings Act.

“More importantly, the Ohio Supreme Court has not ruled as to whether investigative and informational gatherings are or are not meetings.”

The manual continues:

“Not all of Ohio’s courts of appeals draw a distinction between discussions or deliberation that must take place in public meetings, and other exchanges between a majority of members at a prearranged gathering that do not constitute meetings subject to the Open Meetings Act.”

Sounds within bounds, right? And it might have been – had it involved a business owner, utility representative or someone else from the private sector.

But the manual adds that those courts that do recognize such non-meeting gatherings have found the Open Meetings Act does not apply to question-and-answer sessions “between board members and others who were not public officials, unless a majority of the board members also entertain a discussion of public business with one another.”

The key here isn’t whether commission members may have discussed public business. The crucial point is the meeting was with another public official.

Economic development is a laudable goal. But unless closed-door meetings are necessary – and allowed – by law, such proceedings should be open to the public, and the public should be notified as required by law.