Editorial from The Canton Repository
The issue: Ohio’s open-meeting laws
Our view: ‘Attorney-client privilege’ doesn’t give school board carte blanche
Thanks to a Franklin County court magistrate’s decision this week, public boards in Ohio may be less tempted to try to dodge the state’s open meetings law.
This is good news for all of us who want to know how local school boards, city councils and other public bodies do business on our behalf.
Here’s the backstory:
Columbus City Schools is in hot water with the state for changing enrollment figures to make its students’ achievement test scores look better on the district’s report card. Under state law, the board can meet privately with its attorney if it faces “pending or imminent court action.” But the Col-umbus district doesn’t face a lawsuit, so it can’t use that exemption to the open meetings law.
Even so, last year as the “scrubbing” scandal unfolded, board members closed seven meetings to talk with their attorney. He had claimed that any time he’s in the room with them, the meeting can be closed to preserve attorney-client privilege.
Wow. Just imagine the possibilities for shutting you out of a meeting. All a public board would have to do is pay a lawyer to sit in.
The Columbus Dispatch pro-tested the closings and sued the board. This week, Franklin County Common Pleas Magistrate Tim McCarthy issued a preliminary injunction that bars the board from closing meetings under the “attorney-client privilege” rationale.
Boards have any number of reasons for wanting to meet in secret. They may want to get their ducks in a row. They may want to duck questions. They may feel defensive or profoundly uncomfortable about discussing high-stakes situations in an open meeting. Too bad. State law gives them only five exceptions to the open-meetings rule, and in this case, the law comes down squarely against secrecy.
Thanks, Magistrate McCarthy, for the additional weight your injunction gives to this protection for the public.