Four members of the Olentangy Board of Education have denied violating Ohio’s opening meeting law in the latest brief filed with the state’s Supreme Court in a case brought by a fellow board member.
The board members say the lawsuit filed by Adam White is due, in part, to “his motivation to get his name in the paper,” and deny that emails exchanged between them constitute a violation of the state’s open meeting laws.
White claims that a series of emails between the four other board members – who were trying to craft a response to a 2012 Columbus Dispatch editorial critical of a district policy – amounted to an illegal meeting of a public body.
The editorial was in response to a policy the board adopted that required communications between board members and staff to pass through the superintendent or treasurer after White launched an independent investigation into expenditures of two of the district’s athletic directors. One later resigned and both were required to reimburse the district for improper spending.
Months later, the board voted to endorse the response to the editorial.
“The response letter to the editor was nothing more than an expression of opinion and disagreement with the editorial staff of The Columbus Dispatch,” the board writes in its brief. “It in no way constituted official public policy, public business or deliberations upon official business.”
The brief also says the legislature has amended the opening meeting law at least 10 times in the past two decades, but have not addressed electronic communications.
“There is simply no basis in law or in fact that this court need clarify existing law and establish proper law for the use of emails by public bodies in the state of Ohio,” the brief reads.
But that is exactly what White is asking the court to do, saying if the court rules against him, it would provide all public bodies in Ohio with a way to circumvent public deliberations.
That would “undermine the confidence of all Ohio citizens that its government officials are conducting official business in an open, public and transparent manner” and lead to more misdeeds by government officials, he has argued.
The 5th District Court of Appeals had upheld a Delaware County Common Pleas Court ruling that dismissed White’s lawsuit against his fellow board members. The court cited a 2002 change in the state’s open meeting laws, which did not address electronic communication between members of a public body.
Common Cause Ohio, the League of Women Voters of Ohio and the Ohio Coalition for Open Government have thrown their weight behind White’s lawsuit.
White has repeatedly clashed with school officials since taking office in 2012.
In 2012, he accused Superintendent Wade Lucas of threatening his life during an executive session, an allegation his fellow board members denied. He claimed that following the meeting, he was followed by a group of “menacing-looking individuals” who later followed him in a minivan.
White later brought a personal security guard to meetings, saying he feared for his safety.
He is regularly the lone “no” vote on measures, and it is not uncommon for White to vote against approving the board’s agenda at the beginning of meetings.
White’s attorney, Phil Harmon, said the court will likely hear oral arguments in November or later.
Dustin Ensinger can be reached at 740-413-0902 or on Twitter @EnsingerDG.
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