Editorial from The Cincinnati Enquirer

The people who run Clearcreek Township in Warren County are accused of hashing out the public’s business in private, then going into their regular meeting and voting.

It was “a pre-meeting before every meeting,” the township’s fiscal officer testified in court.

If true (the matter is still before a judge), it would certainly violate the spirit, and possibly the letter, of Ohio’s open meetings law.

But confusing the matter is the somewhat murky state of Ohio’s law governing what’s an open meeting and what’s not.

In some cases, sessions meant for fact finding, information gathering, or listening – even when a majority of board members are present – have been considered closed to the public. Indeed, the attorney representing the township, John D. Smith, has argued that the pre-meeting sessions were merely “fact-finding” gatherings and therefore not required to be open to the public.

Those practices shut out the public from what may be the most informative aspect of government business, the give and take between elected and appointed officials, the opportunity for the public to weigh in and the reasons and dynamics behind government actions.

The public should have plenty of notice and plenty of access to these deliberations, because they eventually form the substance of the laws and regulations that govern us. But that’s not always the case.

“A tremendous amount of business that should be done in public now is being done in secret in Ohio,” says Dennis Hetzel, executive director of the Ohio Newspaper Association. “When citizens cannot attend these gatherings, they can’t adequately judge the actions of their officials.”

That’s why a bill now in the Ohio Legislature deserves to move forward.

State Sen. Shannon Jones, a Republican from Springboro, has sponsored Senate Bill 93, which would essentially broaden the definition of an open meeting and clear up what’s open to the public.

The bill would establish that an open meeting isn’t just for board members to “deliberate,” or vote, but is for any “consideration or discussion of public business.”

It would go a long way toward ensuring that the public has access to the decision-making process long before a vote is taken and can offer input and participate.

It would make other improvements in the law by requiring public bodies to be more specific about their reasons for wanting to close meetings and by making it easier for citizens to be reimbursed for attorney fees in cases in which they challenge closed-door meetings and win.

Unfortunately, the Jones bill has been stalled in the Legislature. It was introduced nearly a year ago and just recently received its first hearing in the Senate Government Oversight and Reform Committee. Sen. Bill Seitz, R-Green Township, Sen. Bill Coley, R-Liberty Township and Sen. Joe Uecker, R-Miami Township, are the other local legislators on that committee. They should help move this bill out of committee.

Not everything a government body does should be done in public. And for those cases, there are already more than 30 exceptions to Ohio’s open meetings law. But the public has a right to know how its representatives make the decisions that affect them. Senate Bill 93 would go a long way to improving the public’s access to the public business, and it deserves passage.

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