Sunshine Laws can provide a guiding light when the public is in the dark
Once, as a cub reporter, I got the bright idea of printing out Ohio’s entire 145-page Sunshine Law manual and made my own binder. I lugged that thing (felt like it weighed as much as me) around for years, poring through it as I did rhetorical combat with public agencies to compel them to release information the public has a right to know.
I am an open book about my love of digging into Ohio’s open meetings and records laws.
They have tons of very real-life applications, including a local one just this week. The Akron teachers union filed an injunction to halt the district’s contract with a private tutoring company. They allege the deal had been discussed in an improper closed-door “executive session” before it was approved.
So what does the law say about executive sessions? I’m glad you asked!
Essentially, public bodies can only close a meeting to discuss things privately for a limited number of purposes. During the Jan. 8 Akron Board of Education meeting, Board President Diana Autry initially said the board would be going into executive session for a “legal presentation.” But Board Member Barbara Sykes told her she needed to be specific. Autry, after a bit of deliberation, said the two matters were “pending legal matters” and “personnel matters.”
However, the law sets out only nine exemptions for public bodies to close a meeting. “Personnel” is one of the nine, but it’s a little more complicated than that. The law says “a motion ‘to discuss personnel matters’ is not sufficiently specific.” It needs to be about either the “appointment, employment, dismissal, discipline, promotion, demotion, or compensation of a public employee or official,” or to consider the investigation of complaints against those officials.
So, does hiring a private business to do after-school tutoring for students meet that criteria? The teachers union says no. Autry’s other motion — “pending legal matters” — also might not cover the discussion of tutoring. The only exemption related to that area is to discuss “pending or imminent court action.”
These are the things that keep me up at night! What a life I lead as a journalist. We'll see how things shake out in court, if it gets that far, considering the school district and union do have a little time left to negotiate.
But I promised you a discussion about public records, dear reader, and discuss we shall.
Youngstown State University has been under fire since November for its secretive process used to hire its new president, former Republican Congressman Bill Johnson. To catch you up to speed quickly: The university announced Johnson was one of three finalists in November, without disclosing the names of the other two candidates, nor anyone else considered.
YSU has yet to provide a copy of its contract with WittKieffer, the search firm it paid more than $130,000 to guide the search process. But according to WFMJ’s reporting from December, that contract includes a provision that any data provided by WittKieffer must only be used by the university, and cannot be given out pursuant to Ohio's public records laws, “unless required by a court order." Any personal information of candidates not employed by the university must be “destroyed” after the search.
That piqued my interest. Yes, WittKieffer is a private company, but Ohio’s public records law actually includes a little-known provision that allows release of documents held by private businesses, so long as they are performing a “governmental function.”
I know this because I’ve covered this exact issue before. WittKieffer ran the process for Ohio University’s presidential search in late 2016, when I was a reporter at The Athens NEWS. At that time, the university refused to release the name of semifinalists for president who had been vetted by WittKieffer. It’s actually not that uncommon for universities to have “internal” lists of candidates, provided by private companies, that they never release to the public.
That concept irked me at the time. I took the university to court through Ohio’s public records mediation program, and won access to those records, under the provision I mentioned above.
I ultimately decided not to name the semifinalists because, at that point, the university had already hired its new president, Duane Nellis. Similarly, it's a moot point with YSU, considering Johnson
Still, at YSU, as in Athens in 2016, many in the community have clamored for transparency in the presidential hiring process. They want to know why Johnson — or Nellis in OU's case — was selected over other candidates? And they want to know who else applied.
I can’t help but think that a strict adherence to Ohio’s public records laws could have helped provide some of that clarity.
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