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Mogadore man settles some ‘open meetings’ suits

WARREN — A Mogadore man who filed lawsuits against six Trumbull County governmental bodies has settled disputes with four of those communities.

Touting himself as a warrior fighting for the state’s open meetings, Brian Ames, of Ranfield Road, has collected judgments totaling $2,500 in Trumbull County Common Pleas Court this year, according to court records.

Judges have signed off on out-of-court agreements among Ames and the city of Hubbard in addition to Fowler, Johnston and Vienna townships. In each of these settlements, Ames had accused the governmental bodies with violations of the open meeting law, also known as the Sunshine law.

In the action against Fowler Township, Ames accused trustees of entering into certain executive sessions closed to the public without proper motion and also failed to take adequate meeting minutes at two of its sessions.

Similar civil actions were taken against the city of Hubbard in addition to Johnston and Vienna townships. In each case, the government bodies were required to pay Ames’ court costs, which totaled $5,500.

Cincinnati attorneys Matt Miller-Novak and Steven C. Davis prepared the lawsuits.

When contacted about the settlements, Ames said the real purpose of the action is to get governmental bodies “to follow the law and avoid problems like Atwater Township in Portage County has that may very well cost the township taxpayers some $76,000.”

Similar civil actions filed by Ames against Champion and Kinsman remain on the common pleas docket.

Visiting Judge Gary Yost has scheduled a pretrial hearing in the Champion matter for 9:30 a.m. Oct. 19, while Judge Ronald J. Rice has scheduled final pretrial hearing on the Kinsman issue for 9 a.m. Jan. 11, 2023, with a bench trial scheduled to begin Jan. 23, 2023.

In the Kinsman case, Ames cites seven violations by the board of trustees. They charge the trustees violated the open meetings law on April 30, 2020; Oct. 12, 2020; Jan. 11, 2021; Jan. 25, 2021; April 26, 2021, June 14, 2021; and July 27, 2020.

The first five times, trustees motioned to enter private session for discussing personnel but cited no specific reason listed in the open meetings law, Ames claims.

In the June 14, 2021, Kinsman meeting, the lawsuit states trustees motioned to go into private session to discuss police matters. On July 27, 2020, the township board was accused of entering into closed session to discuss legal issues with the zoning inspector. According to Ames’ lawsuit, under the Ohio Revised Code, a public body may enter executive session only to discuss “pending” or “imminent” litigation with its counsel.

The Champion lawsuit mentions 11 executive sessions in 2020 and 2021 in which the township trustees are accused of violating state law. In the majority of those, they discussed personnel matters without announcing a specific reason, the lawsuit states. On April 7, 2020, Champion trustees allegedly went into executive session without citing any purpose at all.

Attorney Mark Finamore, who is working for the two townships, had said the cases may hinge on a matter now before the Ohio Supreme Court about whether damages in these types of issues can be levied at one lump sum or $500 per violation.

In 2017, Ames in a lawsuit against Rootstown Township, Portage County, alleged 16 open- meeting law violations in 2015 and 2016. He cited the meeting minutes as evidence the township trustees didn’t follow the proper procedure when going into private sessions. The Portage County Common Pleas Court ruled in favor of the township but in appeal the 11th District appellate judges found trustees violated the law 14 times. The trial court then issued a single $500 fine and granted $1,000 in attorney fees, even though Ames had sought $500 for each violation and more than $1,500 in legal fees. The lower court’s award was upheld by the appeals court. Ames then appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court, which held hearings on the matter earlier this year. A decision remains pending.

Attorneys representing the Trumbull County entities had claimed Ames was an open meetings “bounty hunter,” wanting to collect fines for the violations. Both Miller-Novak and Ames dispute that moniker.

Ames said he is looking out only in the interest of the public and in the name of transparency on the part of public bodies.

Miller-Novak said the lawsuit against Fowler was filed because the Ohio Supreme Court ruled in a case 21 years ago it is unlawful for a public body to go into executive session by merely stating it’s going to discuss “personnel.” The attorney also called his client Ames “a transparency advocate.”

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