A member of the Olentangy Board of Education has filed the first brief in an Ohio Supreme Court case that could drastically alter Ohio’s open meeting laws.
Adam White alleges that his fellow school board members circumvented the state’s open meeting laws through electronic communication.
If the court does not side with White in the case, “all public bodies throughout the state of Ohio will be allowed to conduct all public business in private by email or other electronic means so long as they later ratify such private deliberations at a public meeting,” he argues in the court filing.
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 board ratified the response because it knew its prior private deliberations over the matter were unlawful,” White argues. “They sought to correct the error.”
White has previously argued that an unfavorable decision in the case could “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.
“The implications for governmental abuse and corruption are significant if public officials can deliberate privately upon official business via email, video conference and a myriad other forms of electronic communication,” a previous court filing reads.
His colleagues say the stakes are not nearly as high as White portrays them to be.
“Simply, the facts of this case did not involve a pre-arranged meeting, did not involve public business, did not involve deliberations, but merely involved a response to an editorial through a letter to the editor, which is, as this court is aware, a quite common occurrence, as done by public officials all the time, without first requiring deliberations at an open meeting by the public body,” other board members wrote in their brief asking the court not to take up the case.
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.
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