By Ed Runyan
The 11th District Court of Appeals has affirmed a Trumbull County Common Pleas Court decision endorsing the Trumbull County Children Services Board’s requirement that residents attending board meetings must sign their names.
The case involved an October 2011 dispute over whether the protection of the children who live at the facility and the records housed there take precedence over the public’s right to attend a public meeting without interference.
Judge Cynthia Wescott Rice wrote the opinion with agreement from Judge Thomas R. Wright. Judge Diane V. Grendell wrote a dissenting opinion that questioned why the meeting couldn’t be moved to another location.
Former Judge John M. Stuard of Trumbull County Common Pleas Court had ruled in favor of the board’s position in a lawsuit brought by Atty. David Engler of Boardman on behalf of Patricia Paridon of Niles, who also ran for state representative against Sean O’Brien in last November’s election.
The majority opinion said it did not agree with Paridon’s assertion that the Ohio Sunshine Law, which governs public access to government meetings, prohibits a sign-in requirement.
“The public body may place limitations on the time, place and manner of access to its meetings, as long as the restrictions are content- neutral and narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest,” the ruling says.
For example, in a 1994 case, it was ruled that a board had the right to limit the length of public participation at a public meeting and number of speakers. There is no specific mention of sign-in sheets in the Sunshine Law, the court noted.
As for Paridon’s argument that the board should move the meetings to another location, the majority opinion says “it has been held that the public body must use a public meeting place,” but Paridon failed to “reference any authority that addresses the issue of what the public body must do if its general meeting place presents a risk to the security of its residents.”
Because Ohio law doesn’t address the issue, “we must conclude that the Legislature has left the matter to the discretion of the public body,” the ruling says.
“It is difficult to imagine a less-intrusive requirement than simply requiring members of the public who wish to attend a board meeting to sign his or her name,” the ruling says, adding that the board does not verify the signature’s validity.
The board does have a legitimate reason to have the sign-in records, the court said, especially “if they are involved in an incident requiring investigation.”
Judge Grendell’s dissenting opinion says the “emphasis” of the Sunshine Law is to “promote the accountability of public officials and prohibit secret deliberations on public issues.”
The judge adds: “Requiring individuals to sign in creates a situation in which the meeting is open to the public only if they are willing to reveal their identities.”
She said this requirement, which could lead to fears of reprisal, could have a “chilling effect” on anyone wishing to attend the meeting.
Judge Grendell said moving the meeting to another location “would only require the board to hold its meeting at any available location that could be safely open to the public.”