Virus can’t affect open public business
National Sunshine Week, intended to showcase the importance of access to meetings involving our public officials and to all sorts of public records, wrapped up Saturday.
Typically, during this week I write about why we all should care about this stuff because an open government is key to a strong democracy. I usually write about how we shouldn’t forget that every discussion or decision made by government is everyone’s business, and how you, as a citizen, have a right to know about it. I also often say things like every document (no matter if it’s on paper, in the form of a video or audio recording or in a computer hard drive) is owned not by the government official who wrote it or created it, but rather, by all of us — the taxpayers.
I get fired up about this stuff, but I’m not naive enough to think that most readers (yawn) do, too. And I suspect many public officials get downright annoyed when I take the opportunity to get up on my soap box.
Let’s face it, conducting government in the open is often difficult — and expensive. Every time media and citizen activists discover Sunshine Law violations by government officials, they often must weigh the costs of pursuing it against the probable value of what withheld public documents or meetings might reveal. And if lawsuits are warranted, sadly, those court battles end up costing not the public officials — but the taxpayers. Holding our officials to the letter of the law often can overshadow the vital importance of the effort’s larger spirit. I believe strongly that access to information breeds knowledge, and, therefore, Sunshine Laws play a critical role for all of us.
This year, however, things are a little different. The current coronavirus outbreak is a timely reminder of the importance of sunshine, and so far, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine has done a fine job of being transparent on issues involving our state Department of Health and his executive orders that are changing quickly.
Last week Ohio Rep. Lisa Sobecki, D-Toledo, introduced House Bill 557, which would allow open meetings to be held by teleconference or video conference when the governor has declared a public health emergency. This would spell out details to legalize actions like Newton Falls village already began last week after discussions with Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost.
Yost has said he has been advising local governments to consider holding meetings electronically while rules blocking public gatherings are in place as part of the COVID-19 response.
“Under this very limited fact pattern, there may be a basis for local public bodies to use electronic means to meet and comply with the law,” Yost said, according to Ohio media reports.
Some Ohio experts dispute the suggestion because it varies from Ohio’s long-held law that requires officials to meet “in person.” In Newton Falls, council members did come together Monday to meet, but closed the doors to the public, allowing them to watch it on TV and online and to participate by calling in. Media, consistently viewed as representatives of the public, were able to attend in person.
I believe this topic is important and must be pursued. Frankly, I’m glad to see the discussion because it reinforces that our elected leaders realize the importance of finding ways to continue conducting their business out in the sunshine, even when situations exist that challenge such efforts.
As I’ve stated in this column previously, we always must remember the eloquent words from one of our nation’s founders, James Madison.
“A popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”