Court to couple: No legal fee refund for you
YOUNGSTOWN — The 7th District Court of Appeals has ruled a Lowellville couple that sued Lowellville Local Schools over a 2020 Ohio Open Meetings Act violation is not entitled to be paid for legal fees.
The decision, written by Judge David D’Apolito and affirmed by judges Carol Robb and Cheryl Waite, states that the Lowellville schools reasonably relied at the time on an open meetings act policy it bought from the Ohio School Boards Association, which Judge R. Scott Krichbaum and his magistrate, Tim Welsh considered “an established organization.”
A spokesperson for the OSBA told The Vindicator last month she could not verify whether the association gave Lowellville the errant policy the school district was using in 2020, but the language cited sounded like what the OSBA was giving out about that time, which was 2006.
The school district changed its policy shortly after the Krichbaum-Welsh ruling came out in the fall of 2020.
The new policy provides more specificity as to where the public can go to find board meeting notices, including notices for special meetings. The school district now has a place on a subpage of its website for that information.
The meeting the Crilleys challenged was one in which the board voted to affirm the decision of then-Superintendent Eugene Thomas to begin the first nine weeks of the school year with remote-only learning because of COVID-19.
The Crilleys said they would have attended the Aug. 10, 2020, special meeting and spoken against the board action, but the inadequate meeting notification prevented them from attending.
The Crilleys’ attorney, Robert McDowall of Austintown, argued in the Crilleys last filing that it did not matter that the board’s inadequate special-meetings-notification came from a respected organization like the OSBA.
McDowall said the board had a “non-delegable duty” to make sure its open meetings act policies were correct — and to fix them if not.
McDowall said last week he and the Crilleys will meet soon to discuss the ruling but have not yet decided whether to appeal it to the Ohio Supreme Court.
The appeals court panel, based in Youngstown, found that regardless of whether a “plain reading” of the Lowellville Open Meetings Act would have shown the policy to be inadequate, “we find nonetheless that (Krichbaum and Welsh) did not abuse (their) discretion in concluding that a well-informed body could reasonably believe that a model policy fashioned by the (Ohio School Boards Association) complied with” the Ohio Open Meetings Act.
The ruling also found that Krichbaum and Welsh were correct in citing as evidence the testimony of the school superintendent and treasurer, who said that they believed the policy complied with the open meetings act.
It states that the Lowellville Board of Education’s reliance on its public meetings policy at the time of the violation “was consistent with the reasonable belief of a well-informed public body.”
McDowall argued that a “plain reading” of the school board’s open meetings policy at the time “reveals its defects,” but the three judges found “nonetheless that (Judge Krichbaum and Magistrate Welsh) did not abuse (their) discretion in concluding that a well-informed body (of school board members) could reasonably believe that a model policy fashioned by the (OSBA) complied with the” open meetings act.
The ruling added that the school board “employed several methods to (provide) notice (of) special meetings, including internet, newspaper and robocalls, which the trial court concluded satisfied the public-policy concerns” in the open meetings act.
The Crilleys challenged the use of testimony from Thomas, and then-former treasurer Bryan Schiraldi, regarding the board adopting its open meetings act policy “verbatim” from a model policy provided by the OSBA.
The Crilleys also argued that no organization “tasked with the responsibility of drafting model rules would … have drafted ‘such a glaringly deficient special-meeting notification.'” The Crilleys challenged the use of the Thomas and Schiraldi testimony “because they were not members of the (school board) when the (open meetings act) policy was adopted.
The appeals panel ruled, however, that the Crilleys and their lawyer “offered no testimony or documentary evidence in the record” to contradict the testimony of the superintendent and treasurer, adding: “In the absence of such evidence, we shall not disturb the conclusions of the trial court.” The trial court is a reference to Krichbaum and Welsh.
And in the final argument, the Crilleys stated that the Ohio Supreme Court’s ruling in a 1996 case from Clinton County dictates that attorney fees should be awarded in the Crilley case.
But the appeals panel ruled that the Clinton County ruling took place prior to other changes in the law that have since made the Clinton County ruling no longer relevant to the Crilley case.