Government must stay transparent with no exceptions
For years we have raised questions about the existence of unannounced discussions, meetings and, yes, decisions, in what could be construed as improper meetings among members of the board of Trumbull County commissioners.
We’ve been made aware of various reports of two or even three of the commissioners retreating behind closed doors to discuss issues that probably involve county business. Of course, it’s hard to know for certain because, well, the media and the public weren’t invited to participate.
Individual commissioners’ offices are located adjacent to one another in the county administration building, making it very convenient to slip into quiet discussions outside the public eye. Further, when a public board is comprised of only three members, discussions among two of the members quickly can become a quorum and, thereby, an illegal public meeting.
Because of that, it becomes imperative that commissioners tread very, very carefully to remain transparent and avoid any possibility of an illegal meeting.
Under Ohio law, a public “meeting” is defined as a prearranged discussion by a majority of members of the public body on public business. These meetings must be announced in advance.
Since the early days of her political campaign, Commissioner Niki Frenchko has stressed openness and transparency. She has demanded that all discussions of public business follow the letter of the law and be held in open settings.
Bravo! We applaud Frenchko’s persistence on this non-negotiable issue.
Now, Frenchko has taken her demand for transparency one step further by filing a lawsuit against her colleagues alleging they violated Ohio’s Sunshine law when they made a formal decision Feb. 28 to end the work day 40 minutes early for several commissioners’ staff employees after an angry exchange in the office involving Frenchko. Commissioner Chairman Denny Malloy said the decision was made to “de-escalate” the situation and send about a half-dozen workers home early. Frenchko, however, maintains these employees should not be paid for that time, or if they are, they should be required to use their own personal paid time off.
In correspondence from Frenchko’s personal attorney Matt Miller-Novak to Trumbull County Prosecutor Dennis Watkins, Miller-Novak initially accused Malloy of expending county funds unilaterally. “As you are likely aware, the commissioners may only act to expend county funds as a quorum, and all employee compensation is unlawful if not passed in a resolution during an open meeting,” Miller-Novak wrote. “No single commissioner has the lawful authority to order or provide additional PTO (paid time off) that is not the subject of an action or a quorum of the commissioners.”
Subsequently, Malloy said he did not make the decision unilaterally because he discussed the situation by phone with Commissioner Mauro Cantalamessa and together they decided to send the employees home early.
In response, Frenchko and an open government advocates group filed suit against Trumbull County, Cantalamessa, Malloy, and clerk Paula Vivoda-Klotz alleging Ohio open meetings law violations.
The lawsuit claims Cantalamessa and Malloy took official actions privately without Frenchko or the public present.
The suit cites the Feb. 28 “phone” meeting.
“They established a quorum. They discussed matters involving employment, they discussed what action to take, and then they took the official action of sending the employees home early,” all without public notification, the lawsuit states.
Whether a court determines all three conditions were met that would designate this as an official meeting remains to be seen. It seems clear that a quorum of commissioners did discuss public business. However, what might be in question is whether an impromptu phone call triggered by a tense office situation will meet the criteria as a “pre-arranged” meeting.
Still, Frenchko’s suit does include other examples, including a June 2021 gathering when then-Commissioner Frank Fuda and Cantalamessa allegedly met with employees to discuss employment matters that should have been discussed in a public meeting.
The lawsuit also accuses Vivoda-Klotz of circulating emails to commissioners requesting votes on certain matters with commissioners voting on these matters via email and other “round-robin” serial communications.
If proven, these instances definitely are Ohio Sunshine law violations.
The suit asks the judge to order proper meeting minutes of all commissioner meetings and order all actions taken during these meetings be invalidated. It also calls for attorney fees and court costs of the plaintiffs be paid for by the defendants.
It’s unfortunate that we’ve come to this in order to improve transparency. But if this is what it takes, then so be it. Government must operate openly according to the letter of the law and without exception.