The Delaware Gazette has made a public records request to Orange Township for public documents containing communications between trustees, township officials, and an assistant county prosecutor regarding questions about the use of personal social media accounts.
The documents The Gazette seeks are the emails and text messages between township Administrator Lee Bodnar, Delaware County Assistant Prosecutor Mark Fowler, Trustee Lisa Knapp, Trustee Ryan Rivers, and Trustee Debbie Taranto that are dated Jan. 2 through Jan. 4 of this year.
Last week, Taranto released her copies of the emails to The Gazette, prompting the request for the additional communications.
In the emails, Bodnar was asked by trustees Knapp and Rivers to withdraw a request asking Fowler to investigate the legal ramifications of how individual public officials titled and used their personal social media accounts.
“Mr. Fowler: Trustees Knapp and Rivers have asked that I withdraw my request noted in the email … ,” Bodnar wrote in the email.
As stated on page 88 of the Ohio Sunshine Laws 2017 Manual, “The Open Meetings Act requires public bodies in Ohio to take official action and conduct all deliberations upon official business only in open meetings where the public may attend and observe.”
The manual is provided free of charge from the Ohio Attorney General’s Office.
During the Dec. 4, 2017 trustee meeting, several residents approached trustees inquiring about the township’s social media policies. Many of the residents accused Trustee Lisa Knapp of blocking people from her personal Facebook account and were confused about what was covered under the township’s policy.
In an open discussion with the public, a request was made in the interest of protecting the township and its elected officials since there are many similar cases currently in being debated in courts across the country. Some of the courts have ruled that the Sunshine Laws do apply and they are ordering officials to comply with the laws.
On Tuesday, the township released a chain of text messages between Knapp and Bodnar.
The chain is initiated by Knapp telling Bodnar that she had seen the emails asking for a follow-up from Fowler on the issue and asked why he was following up.
“Hi Lee….just saw your email re: facebook pages. Did somebody ask you to look into that?” Knapp states in her message.
Bodnar told Knapp it was a follow-up on something that had been discussed in the public meeting of Dec. 4.
“I was only following up on what Mr. Fowler publicly shared he was going to do….,” Bodnar’s text to Knapp stated.
Knapp stated that she didn’t recall an official resolution asking for the research to be done and the township’s existing social media policy had been approved and is in place.
However, she stated she did not want to pursue the issue any further.
“Also, I don’t want to pursue the matter given that it will probably not come up again. As soon as we get any kind of information, it will be shared with the public who could be encouraged to sue us. My attorney advised me I am completely within rights to have my page as is,” Knapp states in her text message.
Both Knapp and Rivers have said they did not discuss the matter face-to-face or through any electronic means in any way outside of a public meeting. Both also said neither of them told Bodnar to make the request nor retract it with Fowler.
In a phone interview, Rivers said before the emails were sent, he had discussed the issue with Bodnar, but never said anything about dropping the issue.
The township has not yet honored The Gazette’s request for requested documents. Officials said that Fowler is examining the material making sure they are not covered by attorney-client privilege before releasing them.
The next Orange Township board of trustees meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 15 at the township hall, 1680 E. Orange Road, Lewis Center. To view meeting minutes and agendas, go to orangetwp.org.
Contact D. Anthony Botkin at 740-413-0902. Follow him on Twitter @dabotkin.