There should be no quibbling about public meetings statute

A year ago, we took Youngstown City Council members to task for attending a private meeting with the board of directors of Cardinal Mooney High School; today, we focus on the Youngstown school board and its apparent confusion over Ohio’s open meetings law.

According to a front page story in Sunday’s Vindicator, six of the seven school board members attended a March 20 meeting of the Academic Distress Commission and were warned by the panel’s chairwoman that they may be violating the state’s Sunshine Law. Adrienne O’Neill’s opinion was confirmed by Michael Fisher, a lawyer in the Ohio Attorney General’s Office.

In response, three board members left, while three stayed for the commission’s meeting.

But, the issue isn’t dead.

With the Youngstown school system being under state-mandated academic watch, the commission is responsible for guiding the district’s recovery. It has developed a blueprint for academic success that has been approved by the Ohio Department of Education. State law makes the school board subservient to the commission, which is why board members, who are elected by the residents of the district, want to attend the ADC meetings.

That, however, poses a problem with regard to the Sunshine Law.

The school board’s lawyer, Ted Roberts, has not been asked for an opinion, but in response to an inquiry from The Vindicator’s education writer, Denise Dick, he said he does not believe mere attendance violates the statutory definition of a public meeting.

Roberts said so long as board members attend the commission sessions as observers and do not participate, they aren’t violating the law. But he conceded that he would have to research the statute if he were asked for an opinion.

That said, we would remind all involved of a 1982 ruling by the late Judge Forrest J. Cavalier of the Mahoning County Common Pleas Court in a lawsuit brought by The Vindicator against city council.

The lawsuit was prompted by council’s refusal to permit the newspaper’s City Hall reporter and other members of the press to attend informal meetings on the 1982 budget.

The learned Judge Cavalier barred lawmakers from conducting any official business without first giving notice.

Meeting notice

The Academic Distress Commission was echoing the judge’s opinion when it proposed that the school board issue a meeting notice if more than three members intended to attend a session of the panel.

That seems straightforward enough.

We would point out that if there’s any doubt about what constitutes a public meeting, school board members should be guided by this one, simple, powerful word: Everything.

To be sure there are exceptions to the requirements of the Sunshine Law, but private meetings should only occur under very extraordinary circumstances.

Secrecy breeds public suspicion — especially when the public body has the reputation of being dysfunctional, at best.

We strongly encourage all school board members to attend the meetings of the Academic Distress Commission. But, they should do so under the auspices of Ohio’s Sunshine Law.

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