WCPO reporter Amanda Seitz fights to make sure Preschool Promise meetings are open to the public

As journalists, we consider part of our role to be champions of open records, open meetings and open government.

We understand the rules government entities must follow better than the average person, and we try to be your advocates -- pushing for documents and meetings to be open to the public.

These rules, called Sunshine Laws, are in place to allow citizens to track the decisions and spending their governments make. In short, Sunshine Laws exist to protect you and your tax dollars.

So when WCPO government and politics reporter Amanda Seitz received tips that the new board overseeing the Preschool Promise program was not being fully transparent, she decided to look into the matter.

Public boards are required to provide notice about upcoming meetings and allow members of the public to attend those meetings.

Public boards only can exclude the public by going into executive session to discuss specific subjects such as personnel decisions or legal proceedings. The board must specifically identify what type of matter -- from a list of nine allowed subjects -- is being discussed before the meeting is closed.

At a meeting on April 12, the board went into executive session without providing a reason. Amanda asked why the board was going into executive session and no one would give her an answer.

Amanda later heard about an April 20 “board retreat.” The board didn’t notify the public about this meeting that took place at an office building in Norwood.

When Amanda showed up at the meeting, a Preschool Promise official asked who invited her to the meeting. This meeting should have been a public meeting and notice to the public should have been provided.

After debate, Preschool Promise Board Chairman and Xavier University President Michael Graham said the meeting would be opened, although the board originally intended for the meeting to be in executive session.

The meeting discussed the organization’s mission statement and other matters that are not on the list of topics allowed by law to be discussed in executive session.

When I followed up with Preschool Promise this week, I asked if the board had previously gone into executive session before those April meetings. Preschool Promise consultant Anne Sesler wrote in an email that the board went into executive session on two previous instances:

March 2: To discuss how the board felt about its workload.

March 30: To discuss board member attendance.

Jack Greiner, a Cincinnati media and open records lawyer, later told Amanda the law clearly stipulates public boards must give notice before a majority of the board members meet and specific reasons must be given before that board meets in executive session.

“It’s concerning,” Greiner said of the board’s meetings. “There are plenty of resources … it shouldn’t be a real mystery. I hope they’ll use this as a learning tool going forward."

After Amanda’s persistence, Preschool Promise sent an email notice about its upcoming meeting to all reporters on Friday. Previously, the organization only sent a notice to reporters who requested to be notified about upcoming meetings. Here are the details of today's meeting:

The Preschool Promise Board meets at 8 a.m. today at the United Way of Greater Cincinnati, 2400 Reading Rd., Cincinnati 45202. Board meetings are open to the public.

Preschool Promise is now creating a public and media meeting notification process to share with board members and staff, Sesler wrote in an email.

Meetings now are posted on Preschool Promise's events calendar and on the Preschool Promise homepage so people don’t have to search to find meeting notices. The organization also expanded meeting notices to include a link to the board’s page. That gives people access to information about the board and meeting minutes. 

Preschool Promise is creating a bi-monthly newsletter that will include notices about upcoming meetings and links to minutes from previous meetings. 

Each board and staff member has completed or is in process of completing the Ohio Attorney General’s Ohio Sunshine Law training, Sesler wrote in the email.

Through her knowledge of public meeting laws, Amanda is fighting for your right to know what your government is doing and how your tax dollars are being spent.

Thanks, Amanda.

Mike Canan is editor of WCPO.com. Contact him at mike.canan@wcpo.com. Follow him on Twitter or Instagram at @Mike_Canan.

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