Various components of Ohio's Sunshine Law are ignored on a routine basis by local officials in Columbiana County. Although this is illegal and we in the media fight this battle constantly, we tend to give these boards the benefit of the doubt at the beginning of the year, when we know that sometimes the person who was designated as the board's Sunshine Law trained expert may have left office at the end of the previous year.
Nevertheless, Sunshine Law training is not optional, it is required by state law, so local governmental boards should consider this a reminder to make sure one of their members signs up for the necessary training soon.
Several training sessions are scheduled each month around the state. A schedule can be found on the Ohio Attorney General's Web site: www.ohioattorneygeneral.gov. Also on this Web site, a complete copy of the law can be downloaded. So, even for those who have yet to undergo training, ignorance of the law is no excuse - you can read it online.
The law is confusing and many courts have disagreed on interpretations of some portions, but other sections are pretty straight forward and easy to understand. Still, there are those local officials who like to put their spin on even the easy to understand portions and some even imagine passages that do not exist.
Those who have not been trained, or even read the law, especially village solicitors, or solicitor wanna-be's, should refrain from reciting it erroneously.
Here are a few of the blatantly erroneous recitations of the law we've heard recently:
"It's illegal to meet on Martin Luther King Day (or Presidents' Day)." There is nothing in the Sunshine Law governing meeting on holidays. The law governs when meetings must be conducted in public, not what day they can or cannot be held.
"Committee meetings are exempt from the Sunshine Law." False. The Sunshine Law covers any committee or subcommittee of a legislative authority of a political subdivision, for example, a village council.
"It's your (the media) law." No, unfortunately, the media cannot write or enforce laws. The Ohio Legislature wrote this law to protect the public's right to know, so actually, it's everyone's law.
"It's OK to discuss things in private as long as no action is taken." Wrong again. The Sunshine Law is very specific about what types of things can be discussed in executive session. It is illegal to take action behind closed doors, but some discussions are also required to be held openly.
The best advice to boards and councils when in doubt about holding a closed session is to err on the side of caution and discuss it in the open, then you have nothing to worry about. When you attempt to hide things from public view you do nothing but arouse suspicions from both the press and your constituents. Why have everyone think you're being sneaky or doing things illegally if you're not? Follow the law and do it publicly.