Have mask mandates, remote learning led to more interest in local government's inner workings?

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Posted at 2:48 PM, Sep 03, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-03 19:51:23-04

CINCINNATI — A Cincinnati attorney who has won numerous lawsuits against local cities and school boards for violating public access laws says a pandemic push of litigation could be coming.

That's because the pandemic has made curious citizens even more focused on the actions of local government agencies, especially school boards.

“Because of things like mask mandates, and whether or not kids are going to learn inside of school or distance learning, they (citizens) are now seeing local government’s effect on their daily lives,” said attorney Matt Miller-Novak. “It has driven an interest in local government that probably never existed to this level.”

Miller-Novak has made a career out of suing local governments, from Clermont County to Colerain Township to the Lakota Board of Education.

He’s won close to $500,000 from settlements and court judgments in the past five years against community leaders who silenced citizens during public meetings, met in secret or refused to provide public records.

While the pandemic hasn’t translated into more lawsuits for him yet, he predicts that the intense public scrutiny over how local governments are reacting to COVID-19, especially school boards, will keep him busy in the coming year.

“I think the pandemic has affected how people are responding to local government,” Miller-Novak said. “And I think a lot of governments, they think, well, we’re getting a lot of (public records) requests, so everybody is just going to have to wait three or four months to get your records.”

On Thursday he filed a lawsuit against the village of South Lebanon on behalf of freelance journalist and law school student Rachel Richardson, who claims she waited two months for public records related to possibly making the village a sanctuary for the unborn.

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Freelance journalist Rachel Richardson

Richardson, who previously worked as a freelance reporter for WCPO, said she received many of the requested records late Thursday – two hours after she filed her lawsuit in Warren County Court of Common Pleas.

“Public records belong to the public and a citizen should not have to hire an attorney and file a court action to chase down records that are public,” Richardson said.

South Lebanon Village Administrator Jerry Haddix declined to comment.

Richardson has won two prior court victories against the city of Milford over Open Meetings Act violations and donated her settlements to charity.

“The point to me is not the money,” Richardson said. “It’s the government watchdog activism of it. It’s holding governments accountable when they violate the law.”

Miller-Novak is also suing the city of Norwood on behalf of a different resident, Meg Albers, who is still waiting, nearly one year later, for zoning records. She also alleges the city’s Board of Zoning Appeals failed to take proper meeting minutes on topics such as a community mural and a chronic nuisance ordinance.

Norwood enters state of fiscal emergency

The Norwood Municipal Building sits at 4645 Montgomery Road.

In court documents, Norwood Assistant Law Director Tim Garry wrote that city officials have already produced more than 500 pages of records in this case but admitted there may be more.

That case is still pending in Hamilton County Court of Common Pleas. Norwood Law Director Keith Moore declined to comment.

Miller-Novak has won recent cases or reached settlements with Madison Township, Colerain Township, the Lakota Board of Education and the Village of Cleves, worth more than $131,000 in total, for allegedly conducting business out of the public’s sight, or restricting citizens’ access to meetings or records.

Village of South Lebanon
Village of South Lebanon

Attorney Darren Ford, who represents numerous media outlets including WCPO, has noticed an uptick in public records requests, particularly in those made to the Ohio Department of Health for documents related to the pandemic.

“Certainly when people take an interest in how their government is handling a crisis like this, that flows into other areas as well,” Ford said. “I have seen more interest in things like Open Meetings Act violations and how the government is complying with its obligations under these laws.”

Ford also noted that many county and municipal agencies have been slower to produce public records. In part that’s because citizens are requesting more records, and also because some public employees were working remotely for a period of time.

In a December 2020 email to Albers that is attached to her lawsuit, Norwood's Garry wrote: “Neither the mayor, nor any of the council members from whom you have requested records, work full time for the city of Norwood …The members of the Board of Zoning Appeals are all volunteers.”

While Garry is a full-time employee, he noted that he has many job duties besides fulfilling public records requests.

“Ohio law authorizes you to request, and receive, public records. You will get them. Under the circumstances, I would appreciate whatever patience and understanding you can muster as we collect and send records,” Garry wrote.

But Miller-Novak has a different viewpoint.

“The public deserves to have those records produced promptly for transparency,” Miller-Novak said. “The period of deliberation on most local government decisions is very short, so if people don’t have records quick, they don’t even have a chance to participate in the process.”