The Ohio Supreme Court has ruled in favor of former school board member Adam White in his case against the other Olentangy Board of Education members.
In Adam J. White v. David E. King, the court voted 5-2 that email exchanged among board members violated the state’s Sunshine Laws (also known as the Open Meetings Act). The decision, issued Tuesday, reverses prior rulings against White by the Delaware County Common Pleas Court and the Fifth District Court of Appeals.
The basis for the case began in September 2012, when the board voted to affirm its existing policy of contacting school employees through the district superintendent or treasurer. White had challenged the policy by contacting employees directly while independently investigating financial transactions in the athletics department, and to the board during a meeting.
The Columbus Dispatch wrote an editorial in support of White in October 2012. President David King contacted the other board members (Stacy Dunbar, who has since left; Kevin O’Brien; and Julie Wagner-Feasel) via email over 16 days regarding crafting a letter to the editor in response to the editorial. White was not contacted. The letter, signed by King, ran later that month.
Six months later (April 2013), White filed a civil case against the board, and announced this during a school board meeting. During the meeting, the board voted 4-0-1 to ratify the letter, with White abstaining. Delaware Common Pleas Court rejected White’s case in January 2014, while the appeals court affirmed the trial court’s decision in September 2014.
This led White to appeal to the Ohio Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case. In November 2015, oral arguments were presented to the seven justices.
White’s attorney, Philip Harmon, said during the arguments that the case was about the difference between lawful and unlawful communication, and the court’s decision will apply to all levels of government. King’s attorney, John Albert, said the emails regarding the letter did not “contain a deliberation, or a vote, or new public business,” and asked to dismiss the case.
“They were acting to retaliate against my client, Mr. White,” Harmon said of the board in his rebuttal. “It tried to stifle him. It was a measure to control him, and to limit his ability to investigate corruption in the district, which he had done on two occasions to a positive result for the school district, and they were embarrassed by that. It took this public action to muzzle him and say the four of us are running this operation.”
“We conclude that White may be able to prove a set of facts to support his claim that may entitle him to relief,” Justice Terrence O’Donnell wrote in his conclusion. “As demonstrated in this case, serial email communications by a majority of board members regarding a response to public criticism of the board may constitute a private, prearranged discussion of public business in violation of (Ohio Revised Code) 121.22 if they meet the requirements of the statute.”
Justices Judith L. French, Sharon L. Kennedy, William M. O’Neill and Paul E. Pfeifer concurred.
Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger dissented, and was joined by Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor.
“While it may be a good idea to limit the use of email to avoid statutorily required public meetings, that is the task of the General Assembly and not this court,” Lanzinger wrote in her dissent. “I would affirm the judgment of the court of appeals, which, in my view, properly held that the e-mails in this case are not encompassed within the current statutory definition of ‘meeting.’”
“The internet has made everything from shopping and dating more convenient, but circumventing the public’s right to know isn’t one of them,” said Auditor of State Dave Yost, in a prepared statement. “The court’s decision is a warning to any politician who tries to use chicanery to conduct the people’s business in the darkness. There shall be light.”
“The board has always respected and supported Ohio’s Sunshine Law and the goal of transparency in its meetings and deliberations,” King said in a statement. “In its decision, the Ohio Supreme Court has now clarified the law and the prior statutory interpretation of three different Ohio appeal courts, dating back to 2005. The board now looks forward to pursuing a final decision in our favor in this case as it returns to the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas.”
White did not run for re-election to the school board last year and has since left the board.
Gary Budzak may be reached at 740-413-0904 or on Twitter @GaryBudzak.