On Tuesday, the Ohio Supreme Court held that an email exchange between a majority of school board members may qualify as a meeting under Ohio’s Open Meetings Act. The plaintiff, a board member who conducted an independent investigation into alleged improper expenditures by two athletic directors within the school district, voted against a proposed board policy that would have limited similar future investigations. A newspaper editorial praised the plaintiff – the dissenting board member.
Once the editorial was published, and at the direction of the board president, plaintiff’s four other colleagues on the board and several district staff members collaborated on a formal response to the editorial. However, they did so by email and without plaintiff’s involvement. The board president submitted the final response to the paper, signing it in his official capacity.
The plaintiff then sued the board and its individual members, alleging that the email collaboration violated the Open Meetings Act, which requires board meetings to be open to the public. In response, the board publicly ratified its previous response to the paper and denied any violations. Both the trial and appellate courts held for the defendants, finding that sporadic emails do not constitute a meeting because there was no rule or resolution pending before the board.
The Ohio Supreme Court disagreed. The Court explained that the Open Meetings Act prohibits any private prearranged discussion of public business by a majority of the members of a public body regardless of whether the discussion occurs face to face, telephonically, by video conference, or electronically by email, text, tweet or other form of communication. The Court emphasized that categorically excluding email communications from the Open Meetings Act would subvert the Act’s purpose. The Court also noted that by ratifying its response to the paper, the board retroactively made the previous discussions a matter of public business under the law.
Aside from granting plaintiff the ability to proceed with his lawsuit, this decision also cautions public officials to avoid prearranged public business discussions in any medium, especially if the communications involve a quorum. By conducting such discussions, a public body risks violating the Open Meetings Act. Such discussions should wait until an open meeting can be convened.
If you have any questions about this decision, please contact a member of Walter | Haverfield’sandnbsp;Public Law group.