The Youngstown Vindicator published this editorial on October 9. It was distributed by the Associated Press:
Taxpayers in many communities face truly avoidable payments and legal fees, all because their elected officials have not followed Ohio's open meeting laws to the letter.
Shame on officials in Hubbard City, Fowler, Johnston and Vienna. Each recently paid part of a ,500 settlement after being sued for violating the Sunshine Laws under Ohio law. The cases were presented by Brian Ames of Mogadore, Portage County. He was seeking compensation for finding multiple cases of open meeting violations in various nearby communities.
In his research, Ames uncovered some cases that he believed to be open assembly violations.
In addition to these recently resolved cases, Plaintiff also has cases pending against Kinsman, Champion and Atwater Township in Portage County.
Now, some defendants and bystanders have criticized the plaintiff, calling him a "bounty hunter" for his efforts to investigate local gatherings and scour recorded records for violations that could make him money in cases where some would argue they didn't really harm anyone.
However, we say that every time our elected officials violate the Ohio Sunshine Law, it hurts everyone. Too often, our officials seem to forget that they were elected to do the work of the public, and therefore business must be conducted publicly.
When such violations happen with impunity or with a little slap on the hand, that sets the precedent that it's okay, and such violations then go on and on and on.
We believe that citizens patrolling gatherings for Sunshine Act violations could help remind government officials of their responsibilities to taxpayers and the need for full transparency.
In those cases, Ames's attorney, Matthew Miller Novak, said, "Mr. Ames is committed to transparent government throughout Northeast Ohio. The purpose of these lawsuits is to seek an injunction prohibiting these governments from continuing to operate without comply with the requirements of the Open Meetings Act to ensure they operate as transparently as possible.”
However, the biggest disappointment for all of us is that when these types of violations are reported and punished, it is usually the voters who suffer because it is the electorate that ends up paying the fines in public dollars.
Many of the violations alleged by Ames in local communities involve issues related to inappropriate adjournment of executive meetings or behind closed doors where they are allowed to discuss a list of very specific topics.
In fact, it is the responsibility of all elected officials to be informed about the Sunshine Laws and to ensure that they conduct all business openly to the public they represent.
Undeniably, all government officials must be dedicated to maintaining full transparency in public affairs. You must be familiar with the language of the Ohio Sunshine Laws and then ensure that they do not follow the spirit and letter of the law.
Additionally, we believe this issue should renew the debate among state legislators about adding sharper teeth to Ohio's sunlight statutes to hold more accountable elected officials who violate those statutes.