- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 12, 2014

CINCINNATI (AP) - Officials in a southwest Ohio township violated state open meetings law with informal gatherings before public meetings, a judge has determined.

Warren County Common Pleas Judge James L. Flannery’s decision found that Clearcreek Township officials violated the law several times by discussing such items as a lawn care contract and a zoning nuisance policy in the office of the township administrator. Items were pulled from the agenda or clearly decided in advance of the public meetings in some cases, the judge found.

Such sessions raise the appearance that decisions are being made in a back room, evading the “Sunshine Law,” Flannery wrote Tuesday. Sunshine Week, an initiative promoting open government nationally, is next week.

Flannery ordered Clearcreek Township and its trustees not to violate the Open Meetings Act in the future. Officials in the suburban township between Cincinnati and Dayton had said the sessions a half-hour or so before their scheduled public meetings were fact-finding in nature, meant to prepare them for their official meetings.

“The court agrees that there was absolutely no evidence that any of this behavior was mean-spirited” or deliberately meant to avoid the law, the judge wrote, but added that isn’t an excuse. “Public bodies are not free to ignore the Sunshine Law no matter how beneficently motivated.”

A Clearcreek resident had filed a lawsuit over the sessions, a longstanding practice in the township. The township’s administrator said Wednesday that the court made it clear there were neither “systematic violations,” nor intent to violate the law.

“The court specifically ruled that the trustees legitimately wanted to know more information to be able to do their job to the best of their ability,” administrator Dennis Pickett said in a statement.

Flannery said a hearing will be scheduled on legal fees and statutory damages for the township violations he found.

The Warren County case has been watched closely because of suspicions about similar “pre-meeting” discussions by officials of other public bodies around the state.

“It is a vindication for (township resident) Jack Chrisman and a vindication for the people of Clearcreek Township,” attorney Christopher Finney said. “And it’s a signal to all government bodies around Ohio that the open meetings law is to be treated seriously.”

Open-government advocates say officials sometimes use pre-meeting sessions to skirt the law. State Sen. Shannon Jones, R-Springboro, has introduced legislation meant to close any loopholes.

Newspapers in the state have called on officials to abide by the spirit of sunshine laws.

“There is no exception in Ohio’s open meetings law that covers a majority of board members attending a scheduled gathering as a so-called ‘pre-meeting.’ It’s great to see a court affirm that the public’s business should be done in public,” said Dennis Hetzel, executive director of the Ohio Newspaper Association.


Contact the reporter at https://www.twitter.com/dansewell


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