The public has a right to know how its government operates, how its elected representatives vote, how its tax dollars are spent. Government that is not transparent is prone to undue influence and corruption. It’s not enough to allow the public to attend meetings; in order for citizens to participate in the democratic process, government must be conducted in full view of its constituents.
To ensure transparency in government, every state in the United States has laws requiring that government business be conducted in open meetings which the public has access to. These laws are often referred to as the “Sunshine Laws.” The Sunshine Laws dictate open records and open meetings on every level of government, from townships and villages all the way up to the President’s office.
The Ohio Open Meetings Act requires public bodies to take official action and conduct all deliberations upon official business only in open meetings where the public may attend and observe. The statutory definition of a public body, O.R.C. 121.22, is “any board, commission, committee, council, or similar decision-making body of a state agency, institution, or authority, and any legislative authority or board, commission, committee, council, agency, authority or similar decision making body of any county, township, municipal corporation, school district, or other political subdivision or local public institution.” Proper advance notice of the meeting must be given and full and accurate minutes of the meetings must be taken and available to the public.
Executive sessions are an exception to the openness requirement, however, the Ohio Open Meetings Act strictly limits the use of executive session. In order to enter in to executive session, a motion must state the specific topic that will be discussed (permitted topics are outlined Ohio Revised Code 121.22), a second, and a majority of a quorum of the public body must approve the motion by a roll call vote. There can be no decision making or voting while in executive session.
The Open Meetings Act does not specifically address the use of secret ballots; however, the Ohio Attorney General has issued an opinion that a public body may not vote in an open meeting by secret ballot, (2011-Attorney General No. 038). In that opinion, Attorney General Mike DeWine stated, “Voting by ballot is rarely, if ever, used in legislative bodies, because the members vote in a representative capacity and their constituents are entitled to know how their representatives vote.” Voting by secret ballot is contrary to Ohio Revised Code 121.22, enabling the public to know the actions of its appointed and elected representatives.
Any person may file a court action for an injunction to address an alleged violation of the Open Meetings Act, which must be brought within two years after the date of the alleged violation. If a violation is proven, the court must grant the injunction regardless of the public body’s subsequent attempts to correct the violation. A resolution or formal action of any kind is invalid unless adopted in an open meeting of the public body.
Transparency, trust and accountability set the ground work for open government; they are essential in our democracy.
Bridget Sollars is the fiscal officer of Concord Township in Fayette County.