Granville school board sued for alleged open meetings violation

Mar 27, 2018 continues its push for open government,
Expects ruling elite to be pissed — again!

From left to right: Superintendent Jeff Brown, Thomas Miller (board vice president), Jen Cornman, Russ Ginise (president), Amy Deeds, Fred Wolf, District Treasurer Mike Sobul.

By Dennis Cauchon,

I filed a lawsuit today claiming that the Granville school district violated the Open Meetings Act when it selected a new school board member during a closed meeting last week and that, therefore, the appointment is invalid and must be redone.

The lawsuit can be read here.

Ohio’s Open Meetings Act requires all decision-making to be made in public. The school board, by its own admission, picked a new school board member by consensus during a special closed “executive session” meeting held the morning of March 19th. The school board believes it didn’t violate the Open Meetings Act because it held off a formal vote until that evening’s regularly scheduled public meeting at 6:30 p.m. Unfortunately, for the school board (but fortunately, for citizens), that’s not the way the state’s open meetings law works.

“Reaching a consensus” in private is considered decision-making and thus a “formal act” under Ohio open meetings law. The Granville school district joins a long list of local governments claiming that scripted “show” votes are the only thing that need be done in public. This argument — I call it “Doing the North Korea” — has not fared well in Ohio courts, but I wish the school district well in the event it seeks a venue change to Pyongyang.

(For a neutral explanation of Ohio’s open meetings law, see the Ohio Attorney General’s 256-page Ohio Sunshine Laws 2018: An Open Government Resource Manual, pages 87 to 113.)

Replace me, please

Granville’s five-member school board needed a new member after Andrew Kohn resigned and moved to Columbus. Ten local residents applied and were interviewed. Fred Wolf, head of the athletic boosters organization, was selected.

As far as I know, I have never met Fred. Nor do I know any of the other candidates, except a few in passing. I have nothing against Fred or for or against any other applicant. In fact, I have no stake in whomever the school board selects. What I do care about a lot is that our local governments start operating openly and in accordance with the law.

For more than a decade I have encouraged, cajoled, kicked, screamed and requested mostly politely that our elected officials be open and forthright with the public about what’s under consideration. I have had little success.

The Club

For too long, Granville governments have operated like private clubs. Members make most decisions in private, behind the scenes, and then announce decisions to the public. Often, our elected officials are shocked (shocked!) when the public doesn’t agree, respect, understand or trust the brilliance of what the club has decided.

Granville Township Trustees are the worst, by far. (See fire station decision.)

The Granville school board is second worst. (See decision to drug test students.)

The Granville Village Council is actually fairly good at complying with the open meetings law. Having a full-time lawyer at every meeting makes a difference. (I surreptitiously obtained an audio tape of one of the Council’s “secret” executive sessions, and it entertainingly had several minutes of Council members griping about me and my attempts to reveal what they were doing. Village Attorney Michael King, unaware I’d ever hear this exchange, came to my defense, essentially telling the Council, “well, that’s the law.”)

Do you want to know a secret? (Promise not to tell.)

Our local elected officials aren’t conniving or evil. Quite the contrary.

The obsession with doing things secretly is largely driven not be ill will, but by a desire to avoid conflict in public. Midwesterners, especially those who are predominantly affluent and white, highly value consensus and are greatly averse to making trouble in public. In Granville, personal, sometimes bitter, conflicts occur within the club, but what happens in the club stays in the club. It’s a shared value of friend and foe.

It’s also ridiculous, in my view. Not to mention illegal.

The marketplace of ideas is a good thing. It produces better decisions and long-term community trust and cohesion, especially in Granville, home to so many smart, polite people.

To the school board, why Fred was chosen over nine other candidates is a state secret. All the public needs to know is: Everyone was great! The weather is great! We’re happier than we’ve ever been!

This is silly (and illegal).

Secrecy: optional or required?

The Open Meetings Act gives the school board legal authority to interview and discuss candidates in private (i.e., during “executive session).” But this is an option — a choice, not a requirement.

In my view, the entire process should have been done in public — every interview, discussion and decision. Many governments work this way. Granville should, too.

The Village Council is largely an open book in how it handles appointments — planning commission members, replacement Council members, etc. It’s all done publicly at open meetings. It’s interesting. People learn from each other. The world does not end.

Honestly, Granville

Our school board fell victim to a common secrecy malady: it went too far, beyond what the law allows.

Discussions became decisions, and school board members were so unaware that they’d crossed the line that they proclaimed honestly and earnestly that they’d “reached a consensus” in executive session. Club members were convinced they’d done a good thing.

I was sitting lazily in the audience, waiting to hear residents talk about the student walkout, when school board President Russ Ginise announced that the board had “reached a consensus in executive session” on the new board member. I woke up!

My open government alarm began blaring at the words “reached a consensus in executive session.” Private decision-making happens all the time in government, but you’re not supposed to say it! Russ had committed what writer Michael Kinsley calls a true political gaffe: accidentally telling the truth.

Russ’ gaffe also proves the board acted sincerely, albeit illegally, when it violated the Open Meetings Act. Board members didn’t realize they were supposed to pretend that the decision was being made in public.

This is one thing I love about Granville: it is earnest and honest — to a fault!


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