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Appeals court orders judge to explain ruling

YOUNGSTOWN — The 7th District Court of Appeals has sent a Mahoning County Common Pleas Court ruling regarding an Open Meetings Act violation last year by the Lowellville Board of Education back to Judge R. Scott Krichbaum.

The ruling orders the judge and his magistrate, Tim Welsh, to cite reasons for denying legal fees to the family that sued the school board.

The appeals court did not, however, find fault with the ruling of Krichbaum and his magistrate that the vote the board took Aug. 10, 2020, should not be overturned because of the Open Meetings Act violation. The vote was to support the superintendent’s decision to switch to remote only learning for the first nine weeks of the 2020-21 school year.

Christopher and Gina Crilley sued the school district for an Open Meetings Act violation last fall after learning that the Lowellville Board of education voted to support the remote-only learning plan. The Crilleys argued the board’s vote was illegal because the school board failed to notify the public in advance that a vote on the switch would take place at the Aug. 10 meeting. The Crilleys asked that the board’s decision be reversed.

School officials and their lawyers countered that Superintendent Eugene Thomas has the authority to make the switch without a vote of the school board, but the school board voted to approve it as a symbolic gesture.

Krichbaum and Magistrate Welsh ruled that they could not overturn a decision that “had no effect” and said the board’s vote “had no effect.”

The appeals court said in its ruling Friday that Krichbaum and Welsh were correct in ruling that the issue the board voted on was “moot” and refused to overturn the board’s decision.

But the appeals court said Krichbaum and Welsh failed to provide the “rationale” for their decision to deny the Crilleys reimbursement of the legal fees and court costs incurred in suing the school district. The ruling did award the Crilleys $500 in damages.

The ruling states that reimbursement of legal fees to a party such as the Crilleys in an Open Meetings Act violation is mandatory unless a court such as Krichbaum and his magistrate find that “the conduct or threatened conduct that was the basis of the (lawsuit) would serve the public policy” involved.

The Krichbaum-Welsh ruling did not say that legal fees were being denied because the open meetings violation served public policy, the appeals court stated.

Instead, the decision “merely parrot(ed) the statutory language regarding attorney’s fees and other costs but offers no explanation for refusal to award attorney’s fees and costs in this case.”

As to whether the decision of the board should be reversed, the appeals court said Krichbaum and Welsh “found that (the Lowellville Board of Education) committed a violation of the (Open Meetings Act)” due to its failure to comply with the statutory notice requirements prior to the special meeting.

“However, the trial court declined to invalidate the Board’s action at the Aug. 10, 2020, special meeting, concluding that the adoption by the board of the amended (school reopening) plan was merely ceremonial because the superintendent could amend or alter the plan at any time.”

The appeals ruling states that the “mootness doctrine” of court procedure prohibits courts from making a decision on a question “in which there is no longer an actual controversy.”

Courts can issue rulings on “moot issues” only “when those issues concern an important public right or a matter of great public or general interest,” the ruling noted.

But in the Lowellville case, the time for the court to provide a “possible remedy” to the Open Meetings Act violation expired at the end of the first nine weeks of last school year, the ruling states. Furthermore, the power of the superintendent to amend the original reopening plan of the school district “terminated at the conclusion of the school year and have no continuing legal effect,” the ruling states.

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