Public records laws have entered the digital age

East Palestine Village Solicitor Shirley Smith was wise to advise Village Council members to exercise caution when engaging in discussions of village business via email.

Councilman Don Elzer asked Smith at a recent meeting if emails among council members are a violation of the Ohio Sunshine Laws.

The Sunshine Laws dictate how public meetings are to be held and how public records are to be maintained and available to the public.

Under the law, public officials (comprising the majority of the council represented) are prohibited from meeting with one another outside of public meetings to discuss business.

Smith told Elzer that in her opinion, council members can email one another for informational purposes, but should not schedule online “meetings” or “chat” with one another on the Internet at a designated time. Council members said the group email in question was not a discussion of village business, but rather regarding the possibility of a community appreciation day.

The question of whether the emails are public records also came up at the meeting and appears to be answered by the statutory definition of a public record provided by Ohio Revised Code section 149.011(G) :

“The term ‘records’ includes ‘any document, device, or item, regardless of physical form or characteristic, including an electronic record as defined in R.C. 1306.01, created or received by or coming under the jurisdiction of any public office of the state or its political subdivisions, which serves to document the organization, functions, policies, decisions, procedures, operations, or other activities of the office’.”

Smith further cautioned council members saying, “I know that this council desires to have a very transparent type of relationship. I would take the more conservative role and … avoid any question of violating the Sunshine Law.”

We agree. Why risk being in violation of the law and possibly landing in court? And, regardless of whether email discussions are legal or not, they appear unethical and sneaky. Why diminish your credibility with the public by appearing to be hiding information?

The Sunshine Law has specifically defined the reasons public boards are allowed to meet in executive or closed sessions, but everything else should be discussed full view of the public.