LEBANON, OHIO: A lawsuit challenging a township’s longstanding practice of holding informal gatherings before official public meetings is headed back to a Southwest Ohio court.
An Ohio 12th District Court of Appeals judge ruled recently that the lawsuit was dismissed prematurely by a Warren County court. He sent it back to resolve conflicting testimony on whether Clearcreek Township trustees are violating state open meetings law.
Judge Robert Ringland wrote that were too many unanswered questions, including whether the “pre-meeting meetings were prearranged, what the purpose of the meetings was and whether deliberations took place therein.” Township officials defend the practice of having informal gatherings in the administrator’s office ahead of the twice-monthly township meetings, the Cincinnati Enquirer reported.
Township administrator Dennis Pickett said his office is open as township trustees come in and out to gathering information to prepare a half hour before the scheduled public meetings.
“My door’s open. They wander in and out,” he said. “It’s just been everybody in preparation for the meeting is here early, and it gives me an opportunity to show them what we’ve done in the last two weeks, and just lay out the plan, see if I’ve got enough information for them to make a decision.”
The lawsuit filed by a township resident, Jack Chrisman, says the “pre-meeting meetings” are illegal because public business is discussed by a trustee majority. Chrisman, who ran unsuccessfully for trustee in 2011, says in the lawsuit that the there is no public notice of the meetings, the public isn’t invited, and there is no report made on what was discussed.
Chrisman’s lawyer, Curt Hartman, said the three trustees have taken pre-meeting polls in their sessions.
“They pull things off the agenda if they think there will be disputes,” Hartman said. “They want to have a uniform public face.”
Dennis Hetzel, executive director of the Ohio Newspaper Association, thinks the township practice is questionable.
“When they have these information-gathering sessions, if they are discussing stuff, I think you can argue that they are deliberating,” Hetzel said. “If they start asking questions or discussing, they have moved over from information-gathering to deliberating.”
Lawyers will meet with Warren County Common Pleas Judge James Flannery on July 24 to discuss how to proceed in the case, including when it might go to trial.