mahoning county commissioners
By Peter H. Milliken
The Mahoning County commissioners conducted two executive sessions last week concerning lead detected in Oakhill Renaissance Place tap water, during which the discussion included health information that is in the public domain.
But county Prosecutor Paul J. Gains, who is the commissioners’ legal adviser, said he saw nothing improper in conducting the closed-door meetings.
Gains also said the introduction of health information that’s already in the public domain into the closed-door sessions was proper because it was inextricably linked to the legal advice and labor-relations issues for which the executive sessions were called.
“If you want to talk about legal advice, then I would go into executive session,” Linette Stratford, chief of the civil division of the county prosecutor’s office, advised the commissioners Feb. 29.
“We should get some legal advice because, of course, the rumor mill is running rampant,” at Oakhill, said Carol Rimedio-Righetti, chairwoman of the county commissioners, just before the three commissioners unanimously voted to go into the closed-door session.
Although the commissioners are permitted by the Ohio Sunshine Law to go into executive session to hear legal advice, nothing in state law authorizes an executive session for rumor-control purposes.
Rimedio-Righetti could not be reached to comment Monday.
Ohio’s Open Meetings Act states its provisions “shall be liberally construed to require public officials to take official action and to conduct all deliberations upon official business only in open meetings unless the subject matter is specifically excepted by law.”
Two calls came to the newsroom tipping The Vindicator to the sessions Thursday.
Both callers said they believed the meetings should be public so that all county workers received the same information.
With the commissioners in the Feb. 29 executive session were Stratford and her colleagues, Sharon Hackett and Nick Modarelli.
One thing is clear from remarks volunteered by county Health Commissioner Patricia Sweeney at the start of an impromptu news conference with the commissioners immediately after the nearly 30-minute closed-door session: The closed-door session began with a discussion of public-health information about lead exposure and risks that is fully within the public domain.
“I think probably the most important thing, first off, and this is how we started this discussion, was for adults to understand their risk relative to children,” Sweeney said without prompting from the media.
“It’s children under the age of 6 and pregnant and lactating women, women who are breastfeeding, that are at risk for lead,” she said.
“Adults of general good health, if they consume lead, they excrete it.”
“The purpose of going into executive session was to discuss with counsel the potential for Workers Compensation claims, grievances and the potential for any public person suing the county based upon this potential lead issue,” Gains said.
In another staff meeting, the commissioners voted unanimously at 12:23 p.m. Thursday to go into executive session with labor union leaders representing Oakhill workers and with Oakhill department heads concerning lead testing and labor issues, according to the notes of Illa Willis, the commissioners’ office assistant.
Stratford and Hackett attended that meeting.
There was no mention in that executive session motion of discussion of legal advice, collective-bargaining strategy, or the hiring, firing, promotion, demotion, discipline or compensation of an employee, or charges or complaints against an employee, which are the specific matters for which the law allows an executive session on personnel or labor relations.
Stratford said, however, Ohio’s collective-bargaining law allows executive sessions for labor-management issues, which Gains said are not limited to labor-contract negotiations.
The commissioners are legally permitted to discuss in executive session actual or imminent labor-union grievances, Workers Compensation claims and civil lawsuits, Gains said.
But Gains acknowledged he is unaware of any union grievances, Workers Compensation claims or civil lawsuits having been filed concerning lead in Oakhill’s water.
It would not have been practical for Sweeney to give her presentation on lead risks to the union leaders in public session before adjourning to executive session on labor-management issues because the public-health information “was an integral part of her conversation with the unions in executive session concerning their terms and conditions of employment,” Gains said.
“You can’t separate it like that. You go into executive session to weed it all out,” he added.
“Of course, you could separate the two,” and that’s what should have been done, said Dave Marburger, The Vindicator’s Cleveland lawyer.
Sweeney could have given her public-health presentation in public session, and then she could have answered specific questions in executive session concerning matters relevant to the reason for the executive session, Marburger said.
“I don’t know how notifying the union about this water problem is executive-session material,” even if the collective-bargaining law applies in this situation, Marburger said.
Gains’ interpretation does not fit the principle in the Sunshine Law’s preamble that says the law is to be liberally construed in favor of public disclosure in public sessions, he said.
“We wanted there to be able to be a dialogue between labor and management and the experts on the relative risk to the employees, and that’s what occurred,” Stratford said.
“In amongst that was discussion about other labor-management issues and imminent and potential threats of litigation.”