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Committees are subject to the Sunshine Law

March 6, 2011
Morning Journal News

A disturbing trend is starting to surface in Columbiana County that could have long-reaching ramifications for both taxpayers and public bodies.

This past week alone, we learned of two meetings held to discuss public business with no official notice given to the public, including the Morning Journal.

It may seem that this is nothing new: We often chastise public bodies for failing to abide by the Open Meeting Act (Sunshine Law) which requires notification of the media for all meetings.

What we are seeing now are boards that seem to think they have an "out" for not notifying us due to an obscure notion that as long as no action is taken or decisions made, it is not a "public" meeting.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

According to the Sunshine Law, a "meeting" is described as "a pre-arranged gathering of a majority of the members of a public body to discuss or conduct public business."

Where each of these characteristics is present, the gathering is a meeting, whether the public body initiated the session or it was initiated by another entity.

The law was amended several years ago to specifically include committees as "public bodies," meaning their meetings also fall under the same law.

Work sessions are also specifically mentioned as subject to open meeting laws

What some bodies are doing, however, is falling back on the fact that "some" courts have found that, if members act as only "passive observers in a ministerial fact-gathering capacity" or are at an informational session, this does not constitute a meeting.

"Discussion" is defined in the law as "an exchange of words, comments or ideas," and the "simple presentation of information to a public body, without more, may not be 'discussion,'" according to the law.

This past week, several members of the Buckeye Water District board of trustees attended a meeting concerning pending litigation. Although we have been advised they did not comment or participate, we really have no way of knowing, do we, since the media was not notified ahead of time.

Also, we learned this past week, Salineville Village Council's street committee members Jim Howdershelt and Anna Earich met with the postmaster regarding a snafu with house numbering.

We find it hard to believe these two council members and Mayor Dave Berta sat and listened to the postmaster without exchanging even a single word, comment or idea, yet the mayor has said this was "just" a fact-finding session.

Our contention is committee meetings are fact-finding sessions; that's why public bodies appoint committees, to allow for investigation and fact finding prior to the regular board meetings.

Are we, then, to believe all committee meetings fall under this supposed umbrella of fact-gathering and informational session? If so, the public might never know what's going on in a community since a committee could meet, take a recommendation to the full board for a vote and no discussion would ever be held publicly.

We have been alarmed to hear one village councilman actually say as much: that since it's "only an information session" the media did not have to be notified of a committee meeting he was going to call. Suddenly, the Journal has been shut out of all committee meetings in Salineville except those headed by Councilman Tom Hays.

As for the BWD, it could legally have met in executive session on the litigation issue so why not err on the side of caution and just issue a notice to the media?

The fact remains: if you don't have anything to hide, why don't you want the media (and the public) notified of your meetings?

We shouldn't have to remind any public body: action taken at a meeting later declared illegal by a court of law would be null and void. This could have long-lasting ramifications in many situations, especially litigation issues.



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