Judge should ban meetings before open sessions

Most of the time when public officials try end-runs around Ohio’s open meetings law, they sincerely just want to get things done for taxpayers in the most efficient ways possible.

But good intent should be no defense against shutting taxpayers out of meetings. Buckeye State residents have a right to know how their business is being conducted.

An old tactic for avoiding public scrutiny is the pre-meeting meeting. The technique involves calling officials to gather before their formal public meeting to make arrangements for it.

But a Warren County resident in southwestern Ohio smelled a rat when he heard trustees of Clearcreek Township use the practice. He filed a lawsuit accusing the trustees of violating the state open meetings law.

A judge in Warren County dismissed the lawsuit but the 12th District Court of Appeals has ordered it be reinstated. Arrangements will be made for it to go to trial.

Clearly, the appeals court was right. On its face, the taxpayer’s lawsuit makes a valid point.

Township administrator Dennis Pickett said he and trustees are not doing anything wrong. They gather about half an hour before the formal trustees’ meetings twice a month, so he can explain what has happened during the previous two weeks and answer questions about the upcoming meeting, Pickett said.

But Jack Chrisman, who filed the lawsuit, points out there is no notice of the pre-meeting meetings, the public is not invited, no minutes are kept – and some decisions, at least on what to keep on the formal meeting agenda, are made.

That sounds like an open-and-shut lawsuit. Trustees seem to be “deliberating” during the gatherings. What they say and whether they pull items off a previously set agenda for the formal meetings may be important to members of the public. Even what information they request from the administrator ought to be known publicly.

Clearcreek Township trustees may have the most innocent intentions in the world. They may be simply trying to make their formal, open-to-the-public, meetings more efficient.

That does not matter. Allowing such gatherings would set a precedent other, less scrupulous, public officials would abuse.

The Warren County judge should ban the pre-meeting meetings.