Keeping Secrets From the Public

Public officials often thumb their noses at open meetings and records laws. Occasionally, someone blows the whistle on them.

What happens? Usually a slap on the wrist and a suggestion that the officials familiarize themselves with requirements for open meetings and records. The presumption is that no one meant to break the law.

But a situation in Trumbull County, Ohio, makes it clear the scofflaw officials who broke both open meetings and public records laws knew precisely what they were doing — and tried to cover it up by lying.

Reporters from the Tribune Chronicle in Warren had been covering proceedings of the Trumbull County Budget Review Committee for weeks. The panel recently completed a report to county commissioners with recommendations on various budget-related matters.

Once the committee’s report was completed, it became a public document under Ohio law. Yet a member of the panel refused to allow a reporter to see the document before it was given to county commissioners.

That was in keeping with the panel’s penchant for illegal secrecy. Twice during a two-week period, the newspaper’s reporter was escorted out of committee meetings – though the panel’s reason for closing them did not comply with state law.

Then, it happened again. But this time, the reporter, standing in a hallway, could hear what committee members were saying. After claiming they were meeting behind closed doors to discuss pending litigation — permitted under the law — they talked about a variety of other matters. Among them was how to influence public opinion and what was reported in the press. It is not legal under the open meetings law to discuss any such topics in a closed meeting.

Finally, members of the panel agreed that minutes of the closed meeting should show that the only thing discussed was a request for records. In other words, they agreed to lie — on paper.

Outrageous? Yes. But unacceptable? Apparently not, because such behavior occurs with regularity. Until the public demands officials who break the open meetings and records laws be punished — not just told to go and sin no more, but meaningfully penalized — government will continue to be handled behind closed doors.