LEBANON, Ohio -- A Warren County judge has ruled that Clearcreek Township officials have violated Ohio law for decades by holding secret meetings to discuss public business.
Court of Common Pleas judge James Flannery said that trustees who regularly attend informal meetings in the township administrator’s office to review agenda items and other matters a half-hour before their public meetings are violating the Ohio Meetings Act.
“The court finds without dispute that the Township Trustees made a regular practice of two or all three trustees meeting in the office of the Township Administrator, Dennis Pickett, approximately 30 minutes prior to the scheduled public meeting at 6:30 p.m.,” Flannery wrote in the decision issued Tuesday.
Agenda items were clearly decided in advance of public meetings and pulled from agendas in some cases, the judge found.
Flannery issued an injunction, ordering officials in the suburban township to not violate the open meeting law in the future. He wrote that the gatherings give the appearance that decisions are being made in the back room, which ultimately can lead to violations of the "Sunshine law." The decision comes just a few days short of Sunshine Week, an annual initiative promoting open government nationally.
The Clearcreek Township trial began Jan. 30 this year, but the lawsuit was filed years before. Clearkcreek Township resident Jack Chrisman filed a lawsuit against the township and trustees in 2011, alleging that trustees’ “pre-meeting meetings,” held for more than 30 years, violate the law.
“I want to see transparency in the township completely from all the trustees. I want to see them advertise their meetings and let everyone know the meetings will be at a certain day, a certain time,” said Chrisman.
Chrisman filed the lawsuit out of concern that trustees were making informal decisions out of the public eye that affect him and others in the township. It's a common fear of many taxpayers, who recognize the larger impact of small decisions made by their local officials.
"These local government bodies are taking actions that have more impact on your life than the federal government does. That's a pretty compelling reason for people to care," said Dennis Hetzel, executive director of the Ohio Newspaper Association.
The lawsuit named current trustee Glenn Wade and former trustees Robert Lamb and Cathy Anspach. It also names the township administrator, Dennis Pickett, who says he has worked for the township since 1985.
Flannery tossed out the original case because he said there was not evidence the trustees were formally deliberating at the informal meetings. But Chrisman appealed Flannery’s decision and won.
In his decision Tuesday, Flannery ordered the lawyers for the township and for Chrisman to schedule a hearing to decide on the payment of damages to Chrisman from attorney fees in the lawsuit.
Chrisman's attorney, Chris Finney, said Wednesday that he will request more than $200,000 for legal costs incurred during the suit.
Hetzel, an advocate for open meetings, said the outcome of the hearing between the lawyers will be significant to watch because it could determine whether other citizens feel empowered to enforce the law.
"In a normal lawsuit you're trying to get money, but in these cases you're not asking for money. You're asking for the board's action to be invalid or not to do it again. But it still costs you money to litigate," he said. " The ability to have a chance of recovering your costs is significant because if you can't, if you don't have a realistic opportunity to get your money back even after you win, then only the wealthiest people can take on government."
DELIBERATING VS. INFORMATION GATHERING
The issue that the two sides in the case had to prove to win is whether the trustees were simply absorbing information provided by their township employee or whether they’re discussing that information with each other.
Become a WCPO Insider to read more about distinction between deliberating and information gathering historically recognized by courts, and find out what one local lawmaker is proposing to redefine the law.