Should Ohio's Open Meetings Act be expanded to include more types of gatherings?
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Mayor, City Council meet with business leaders in private

Event described as social, but critics cry foul

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CINCINNATI -- A powerful group consisting of Greater Cincinnati’s top business executives recently hosted a reception for Mayor John Cranley and City Council.

What topics were discussed at the event, however, aren’t known with certainty as the event was closed to the public and media.

The Cincinnati Business Committee held the reception Jan. 29 at Procter & Gamble’s corporate headquarters.

The reception, hosted by Procter & Gamble CEO A.G. Lafley, was designed “to welcome the new mayor and City Council” that took office in December, according to the invitation sent to elected officials.

Among those expected to attend the event were “the over 90 business leaders that comprise the CBC,” the invitation stated.

Cranley and seven of City Council’s nine members attended the reception.

A WCPO reporter tried to gain access to the event, but was prohibited by CBC representatives.

Advocates for government transparency and public access said it’s unclear if the reception violated Ohio’s Open Meetings Law.

But some critics allege it violates the intent of the law: To prevent a majority of a public body from gathering at one time in which issues that may later become the topics of legislation are discussed, without public scrutiny.

Gary Lindgren, the CBC’s executive director, said the reception didn’t violate Open Meeting Laws because elected officials discussed no official business.

“Positive, collaborative relationships between business, civic and government leaders are essential to our region's future,” Lindgren said.

“This informal reception clearly complies with Ohio’s open meetings requirements,” he added. “This is not a prearranged gathering for the purpose of discussing public business – no official actions or deliberations are taking place.”

Lindgren, a former chief of staff for Congressman Steve Chabot, said only informal conversations and “chit chat” occurred at the event.

When asked why the media couldn’t attend if that was an accurate description, he replied, “It’s for business and governmental and community leaders. It’s not an open reception.”

Under Ohio law, meetings of a public body must be open when they are taking official action, conducting deliberations or discussing the public’s business, which they must do in an open meeting, unless the subject matter is specifically excepted by law.

When deciding whether gatherings of public officials constitute a meeting, several courts have ruled 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.”

Many media groups and good government advocates, however, describe the distinction as a “loophole” and “gray area” in the law that allows elected officials to conduct important conversations away from the public eye.

Local attorney Tim Mara, who has challenged area governmental agencies on public access issues, questions the reception’s purpose.

“I am bothered by Mr. Lindgren's comment about ‘collaboration,’” Mara said. “If there is to be collaboration between City Council and any group, the public is entitled to hear the discussion which leads to that collaboration rather than be presented with a fait accompli.”

A pending bill introduced by State Rep. Shannon Jones (R-Springboro) would broaden the Open Meetings Act.

If approved, the bill would open “consideration or discussion of public business” to the public, rather than the current language that only opens “deliberations upon official business” to the public.

Dennis Hetzel, the Ohio Newspaper Association’s executive director, supports the change. Often, informal gatherings lead to policy proposals that impact the public, he said.

“This is not some subject of arcane interest only to lawyers and public-policy junkies,” Hetzel has written about the bill. "A tremendous amount of business that should be done in public now is being done in secret in Ohio."

“These ‘informational’ or ‘fact-finding’ meetings often are the most useful, important meetings a governmental body can hold,” Hetzel added. “When citizens cannot attend these gatherings, they can’t adequately judge the actions of their officials.”

Cincinnati City Council members defended their participation in the private reception.

“It was an entirely social event where no public business was discussed,” said Vice Mayor David Mann. “It is similar to many events that I attend hosted by a whole range of organizations from community groups to charitable organizations to labor groups to industry groups.

“Part of being a public official is being entirely accessible to citizens and organizations,” Mann said. “Invite me and I will come. I may learn something and you may learn something.”

Councilwoman Amy Murray described the reception strictly as a social event.

“There was absolutely no business discussed. It was just a chance to meet people and shake hands,” Murray said. “I think I spoke to one council person while I was there,” she added. “There was no program or agenda. We are all very careful to adhere to the Sunshine Laws.”

Founded in 1977, the CBC is comprised of more than two dozen chief executive officers of Cincinnati’s largest companies. They include Procter & Gamble, Kroger Co., Federated Department Stores, Western & Southern Financial Group and Castellini Co.

The group, which doesn’t have a website and rarely discusses its initiatives publicly, include major contributors to local mayoral and City Council campaigns.

In paperwork filed with the IRS to keep its nonprofit, tax-exempt status, the CBC describes its mission as "committed to identifying and providing leadership on selected issues the members consider especially important to the long-term economic vitality and well-being of the Greater Cincinnati community."

The Charter Committee, Cincinnati’s de facto third political party that bills itself as “the good government people,” said having politicians communicate with a wide variety of constituents is important.

“Regarding the event, without knowing the details I can't comment on it specifically,” said Colin Groth, Charter’s president.

“I can say that generally I think its important for elected officials to get outside of their respective institutions and meet with leaders in the community from all sectors -- business, nonprofit, faith-based, etc. -- to have frank discussions about priorities within the city and region,” Groth said. “Any specific policy that might emerge from conversations should be vetted through a public process to ensure accountable, transparent government.”

William Kolis Jr., a Cleveland attorney who specializes in media law, said the public typically doesn’t even know when such events are held. That heightens distrust of government.

“Such a meeting and the lack of access to the same is newsworthy and it is imperative that all media shine the light on such activities and require political participants to account for their actions,” Kolis said.

“When politicos come to understand that making a voluntary disclosure to the public is better for them politically than to remain silent and take refuge behind the Sunshine Laws, then they will do so,” Kolis added.

For Mara, the event is about the way wealthy and influential contributors try to sway the public decision-making process.

“We are in an era when powerful business people are using the recent economic downturn as a reason or excuse for closer ‘collaboration’ between the business community and public officials,” Mara said. “The resulting ‘public/private partnerships’ often exclude ordinary citizens from any meaningful role in decision-making. In fact, often times the very purpose of such partnerships is to avoid public participation in decision-making and public scrutiny.

“I think this is a real threat to our democracy. We are moving dangerously closer to an oligarchy,” Mara added. “The purpose of the Sunshine Law and the Public Records Law is to empower the public, but the rich and powerful keep finding new ways to evade the law.”

For more stories by Kevin Osborne, visit www.wcpo.com/osborne. Follow him on Twitter at @kevinwcpo

Copyright 2014 Scripps Media, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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