By David Skolnick
With a backdrop of two recent meetings of Youngstown city officials that may have violated the state’s open-meetings law, the Ohio Attorney General’s Office will have a Sunshine Laws Training session Monday in the city.
But the three-hour session comes not in reaction to the two questionable meetings.
“It’s preventative, it’s educational, and it’s to help local officials comply with Ohio’s public-records law,” said Attorney General Mike DeWine.
The state Legislature approved a bill in 2007 that required all elected officials in Ohio or their designees to attend a training session at least once during their time in office. Also, the public is invited to attend the free sessions.
DeWine’s staff will have a training session from 1 to 4 p.m. Monday at the Newport Branch of the Public Library of Youngstown & Mahoning County at 3730 Market St. in Large Room A.
Elected officials from communities — including three Youngstown council members who met privately April 8 with the Cardinal Mooney High School board of directors — along with citizen activists — including those who are leading the effort on the city’s anti-fracking charter amendment — are among more than 50 people to have RSVP’d for Monday’s session.
The sessions are conducted by the attorney general’s office about 25 to 30 times a year around the state, but are they needed?
“When the General Assembly made it a requirement, I assume it was perceived [that elected officials] didn’t understand the specifics of the open-records act,” said Jeff Clark, principal assistant attorney general, who leads most of the training sessions, and will run the one in Youngstown. “The people I speak to come away with a much better understanding of the law.”
DeWine said, “By and large, they’re aware of the need to know, but not all the nuances of the law. It varies from people who know it very well to those who are new [to elected office] and don’t know it well.”
It’s important for public officials to know “what the law is,” DeWine said. “Also, when the public understands what is going on, we have a better government.”
There are a few misconceptions about open-records and open-meetings laws, DeWine and Clark said.
“There tends to be a knee-jerk [reaction with] some public officials that if something doesn’t have to be released, they won’t do it,” Clark said. “There is discretion with records being released so why not [provide them] in the spirit of fairness? Sometimes it’s beneficial to release information.”
On the other side, Clark said, the “public has the misconception they can ask any question they have, and government has to drop everything to answer all questions. [A request] can’t be overly broad or overly voluminous.”
While saying these sessions are beneficial, David Marburger — an attorney for The Vindicator and other newspapers and considered one of the state’s top public-records experts — said what people take away from them “is all a matter of interpretation, and political philosophies. Some are open, open, open, and others feel it’s no one’s business what people want to know.”
Most of the issues about complying with open meeting and records laws aren’t with elected officials, he said, “but the lawyers of the officials who tend to construe it against the people, generally speaking. A great deal of controversy lies at the feet of attorneys for public officials.”
Also, because most public- sector attorneys “believe they already know the law,” a session like the one in Youngstown wouldn’t help them, Marburger said.
The session comes on the heels of two questionable meetings involving Youngstown city officials.
On April 8, six of council’s seven council members along with other city officials with the Mooney board of directors as the bishop considers moving the Catholic school out of the city.
City Law Director Anthony Farris, who attended the meeting, said he determined it was not open to the public because the “interaction” wasn’t a meeting “as defined by” state law, and could be held in private.
Marburger said there is “no doubt in my mind that’s a public meeting.” He added that it isn’t “even a debatable issue.”
Then on Tuesday, the city’s Design Review Committee had a special meeting to approve plans to improve the front of the Paramount Theatre site on West Federal Street. The long-vacant building is being demolished starting next month.
The DRC is considered a public body under state law and “shall not hold a special meeting unless it gives at least 24 hours’ advance notice to the news media that has requested notification,” according to Ohio law. This newspaper has asked a number of times to be notified of DRC meetings. The head of the DRC apologized for failing to give proper notice, something that has happened a few times in recent years.
DeWine and Clark declined to comment on those specific cases.
But DeWine said overall, the state law “favors disclosure.”
Among those attending Monday’s session are three Youngstown council members — Annie Gillam, D-1st; Paul Drennen, D-5th; and Janet Tarpley, D-6th. The law requires members of council or an “appropriate designee” to attend. Valencia Marrow, council’s clerk who is considered an appropriate designee, is signed up to attend.
“I understand Valencia can go for us, but it’s good to go myself,” Drennen said.
“You might think you know it all, but that’s not the case,” she said. “It’s a refresher course. We don’t want to keep having problems like we did at Cardinal Mooney. We didn’t think that through like we should have.”