Council violated sunshine laws in meetings over stadium plans
OHIO–In an early September ruling, the Ohio Supreme Court held that the Cincinnati City Council had intentionally tried to circumvent the state open meeting laws when it held a series of back-to-back private meetings with small groups of council members.
City manager John Shirey testified that the June 1995 meetings were planned to prevent a quorum from being present and bypass the requirement that the meetings be open to the public. “The reason for having fewer than a majority of members at a meeting is so that we wouldn’t violate Ohio’s Open Meeting Law,” Shirey stated in a deposition.
The high court found the Council’s actions clearly violated the law. The purpose of the law, the Court reasoned, “is to prevent just the sort of activity that went on in this case — elected officials secretly meeting to deliberate on public issues without accountability to the public.”
The controversy stems from a series of closed-door meetings held to discuss the dissatisfaction of Cincinnati’s professional sports teams with county-owned Riverfront Stadium and a proposed agreement between the county and the city to construct a new sports facility. In these meetings, council members expressed their opinions and analyzed the county’s proposal. The multi-session meetings were conducted on three different dates. At no time was a majority present, no votes were taken, and the public and media were barred.
In late June 1995, the council held a special public meeting at which it announced the approval of an agreement between the city and the county. There was no public discussion of the plan or the reasoning behind the agreement.
After the council announced its agreement with the county, the Cincinnati Post asked the city to prepare and disclose the minutes describing what happened in the sessions. The city refused, and would not admit that the sessions had actually taken place. The Post then sued to compel the city to prepare and release public minutes of the sessions.
In a short but strongly worded opinion, the Ohio Supreme Court held that the “Ohio Sunshine Law cannot be circumvented by scheduling back-to-back meetings which, taken together, are attended by a majority of a public body.” The Court reasoned that the back-to-back sessions clearly fit within the definition of “meeting” under the Sunshine Law — a discussion of the public business of the public body with the presence of a majority of member of the public body. The court held that back-to-back sessions discussing the same public issues can be seen as parts of a single meeting. As each council member attended one of the sessions, a majority of members attended the “meeting.” Therefore, the sessions should have been public, and according to the Court, the city must now prepare and make available complete public minutes. (Cincinnati Post v. City of Cincinnati; Media Counsel: David Marburger, Cleveland)