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Closed-door sessions must be the exception



Published: Sun, August 26, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



We are well aware that Ohio's open meetings law gives public officials the ability to meet behind closed doors to discuss specific issues, but we do not believe that legislators meant for the so-called Sunshine Law to become a wall separating the public from the public's business.

The complaint that the Youngstown Board of Education has made executive sessions the rule rather than the exception should prompt members to reassess their behavior.

As Mary Lou Mack, a member of ACTION, told the board during its meeting Monday, "Honestly, the public thinks you're kind of sneaky."

Not surprisingly, members took exception to being characterized as & quot;sneaky & quot; and argued that closed-door sessions are necessary to protect the confidentiality of certain matters the board may be discussing.

Rarity: While it is true that specific personnel and collective bargaining issues, some legal matters and the sale or purchase of property are covered by the Sunshine Law, we would suggest that executive sessions should be rare and should not last a long time.

If, on the other hand, it appears that an inordinate amount of time is going to be spent out of the public's view, such a session should be scheduled at the end of the regular meeting -- not the beginning.

As we have often said, government works best when it is in the glare of public scrutiny.

Board member Alan Stephan let it be known that he does not like executive sessions because "they have the perception of secretiveness." And Stephan added, "I wish they could be open, but the law doesn't allow it."

We think that Stephan is misreading the law. Ohio's open meetings statute does not say that public bodies must go behind closed doors when discussing issues such as the personnel record of a public employee.

There may be legal reasons why a private discussion is advised, but the law does not demand such secrecy.

Indeed, the Ohio Supreme Court has made it clear that executive sessions should not take the place of public meetings.

Too long: The Youngstown Board of Education should give serious thought to ACTION's observation that within minutes of a regular meeting being opened, the board goes behind closed doors. Such sessions sometimes last more than an hour, Mack pointed out.

"I think you've got a big public relations problems that you're going to have to address sometime along the line," said the member of The Alliance for Congregational Transformation Influencing Our Neighborhoods, which is made up of 25 churches in the region. One of its areas of interest is education. That is why ACTION has been monitoring city school board meetings.

The public relations problems can be solved with one simple rule: Let the sun shine in.




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