Youngstown lawmakers should study the 1982 ruling by the late Judge Forrest J. Cavalier before they rest assured that they did nothing wrong in meeting privately with Cardinal Mooney High School’s board of directors.
The Mahoning County Common Pleas Court opinion, in a lawsuit filed by The Vindicator against city council, had four words that establish the guiding principle: transacting the city’s business.
Judge Cavalier barred council members from conducting any official business without first giving notice to the press.
The Vindicator filed the lawsuit after council had prohibited the newspaper’s city hall reporter and other newsmen from attending informal meetings on the 1982 budget. The ruling also applied to all sessions of council committees.
Judge Cavalier’s unequivocal support for transparency in government was the precursor of Ohio’s expanded open meetings and public records laws.
And yet, we find ourselves regularly scolding local government officials for conducting the people’s business behind closed doors.
The opinion of Youngstown Law Director Anthony Farris notwithstanding, the private meeting on April 8 between six members of city council and the Mooney board was a clear violation of the state’s Sunshine Laws.
Don’t take our word for it — even though this newspaper has spent a lot of money over the years fighting local governments in court over the public’s right to know. The leading legal mind on transparency in government, Atty. David Marburger of the Cleveland law firm of BakerHostetler, says council members violated the law.
How? Simple: A majority of council attended a prearranged meeting to discuss Cardinal Mooney High School’s future in the city. A group of influential Mooney supporters is advocating the relocation of the school from the South Side, where it has been since 1956, to a site in Boardman.
The Catholic Diocese Youngstown has hired a consultant, who has completed a feasibility study on the move and on upgrading the high school structure at its current location.
Bishop George Murry will make the final decision, and will consider the opinions of all interested parties, including the Mooney board and members of city council.
The six lawmakers didn’t end up in the meeting by happenstance; it was prearranged.
And, council members weren’t there to talk about the weather, Mooney’s exceptional academic record, or its athletic prowess. They met with the board of directors to get a sense of what’s going on and what city government can do to keep Mooney from moving.
In other words, the members of council were on official duty, regardless of Law Director Farris’ use of the word “gathering” rather than meeting.
The fact of the matter is that council and Mayor Charles Sammarone will come up with an incentive package of some kind as the date for a decision by the bishop draws near. Legislation would be required to commit any taxpayer dollars to the effort. But even if there isn’t money involved, any decision by city government to bolster the case for Mooney to stay put would be considered an official transaction. Thus, whatever council members learned in their meeting with the board of directors would have a bearing on what is ultimately done in City Hall.
The following words, written by the late Judge Cavalier, should etched in the minds of the lawmakers:
“It is only fair that when they [council members] hold a prearranged discussion of city business, the public has a right to know what is going on in the meeting.”