Oral arguments before the Ohio Supreme Court are set for Nov. 17 in the case of a member of the Olentangy Board of Education who has accused his four colleagues of circumventing the state’s open meeting laws through electronic communication.
Adam White, who will not seek re-election to the board, has said the case could determine the level of transparency required in government going forward.
“If this court rules that face-to-face meetings are covered under the Sunshine Statute but email meetings are not, it would essentially be ruling that the Sunshine Statute is meaningless,” White writes in his latest brief filed with the court this week. “It would be saying that the Sunshine Statute only covers a tiny percentage of decisions which are made in private face-to-face meetings but not the vast majority of all decisions made electronically these days.”
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.
White’s colleagues have denied any wrongdoing, and two courts agreed.
The 5th District Court of Appeals 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. However, the Ohio Supreme Court agreed to hear that case.
White has asked the state’s highest court to “liberally construe” the law.
The “court should not engage in any analysis of the legislative intent in passing the statute but should proceed instead to simply apply the statute as written,” White writes.
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 former 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 has regularly been the lone “no” vote on board measures, and it is not uncommon for White to vote against approving the board’s agenda at the beginning of meetings.
Dustin Ensinger can be reached at 740-413-0902 or on Twitter @EnsingerDG.