Elected officials aren’t necessarily required to keep their lips sealed after a closed-door meeting — commonly known as an “executive session” — according to state law.
The issue came up Monday at a Liberty Township trustees meeting when Trustee Melanie Leneghan sought a motion to keep private any matters discussed in a closed session. An executive session was scheduled to discuss personnel matters, specifically authorizing $7,500 more in expenditures for an investigation of the township’s suspended fire chief, Tim Jensen.
Leneghan said information from prior executive sessions has been shared with township staffers, and she pointed the finger at fellow Trustee Tom Mitchell.
The Gazette contacted the Ohio Attorney General’s Office for a clarification about discussing executive session matters with others. Public bodies are permitted by law to discuss certain specific matters — including personnel — behind closed doors.
Dan Tierney, a spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office, referred The Gazette to his office’s publication “The Ohio Sunshine Laws 2016” which states: “The Open Meetings Act does not prohibit the public body or one of its members from disclosing the information discussed in executive session. However, other provisions of law may prohibit such disclosure.”
Mitchell told The Gazette that he had talked with Chris Betts, an assistant Delaware County prosecutor, about what can be said outside of executive sessions. Mitchell said the advice Betts gave was “that it was best to state it,” before going into executive session.
Betts, contacted by The Gazette Wednesday, said he couldn’t comment on the matter because Liberty Township is considered a client of the prosecutor’s office.
“We all know, and Melanie even says it’s free to speak about what happens in executive session, really you shouldn’t,” Mitchell said in a voice mail to The Gazette late Tuesday afternoon. “Making a statement before executive session, ‘this is going to be private,’ is actually redundant. What happens in executive session is supposed to stay there.”
“I’m not going to agree to anything that Melanie really says,” Mitchell said in the voice mail. “I didn’t know what she was trying to bring up or pull. She is always trying to set people up and set traps and all that. I think everyone knows, I don’t trust Melanie as far as I can throw her. The expectation is the information is not for public consumption.”
The third Liberty Township trustee, Shyra Eichhorn, told The Gazette Wednesday that “generally it’s always been the rule that we don’t talk about executive session things.”
Eichhorn said each trustee brings a different perspective to the table. “There are three different perspectives and sometimes there can be tension,” she said. She noted that she was a little frustrated with the drama but “I think the three of us work very well together.”
Leneghan told The Gazette Tuesday that confidential information from executive sessions has been shared with township staff. “I’m assuming that it was him (Mitchell),” she said. “Things that we talked about, the entire fire department knew.”
The executive session was scheduled to discuss personnel matters, specifically authorizing $7,500 more in expenditures for the investigation of Jensen by Cincinnati attorney Douglas Duckett. In the public session, the resolution to authorize the expenditure was tabled.
Asked about the additional $7,500 expenditure being tabled, Eichhorn said, “I can’t comment on that because of legal perspectives.” Trustees earlier had authorized $7,500 be spent on the investigation.
Jensen has been suspended with pay pending the investigation into his conduct as fire chief.
D. Anthony Botkin may be reached at 740-413-0902 or on Twitter @dabotkin.