Recently the Supreme Court of Ohio was tasked with determining whether a series of emails between and among a majority of the members of a public body qualifies as a meeting for the purposes of Ohio’s Open Meetings Act (R.C. § 121.22 ). The issue came before the Court when a Board of Education Member from the Olentangy Local School District sued his own board.
In White v. King, 2016 -Ohio- 2770, plaintiff Adam White was a former member of the BOE and had conducted an independent investigation into alleged improper expenditures. Thereafter, the four other members of the Board voted to amend a policy, which effectively prevented future independent investigations. The Columbus Dispatch wrote an editorial criticizing the restrictive policy and the board members (excluding White) sought to respond to the article to defend their decision. The four board members collaborated in drafting a response via a series of emails. White filed suit alleging that the other board members had violated the Open Meetings Act because the private emails sought to ratify a prior action of the Board, which he believed constituted a prearranged discussion of public business.
The Supreme Court of Ohio explained that under the Open Meetings Act, all meetings of any public body are declared to be public meetings open to the public at all times. A meeting, according to the Act, is any prearranged discussion of the public business of the public body by a majority of its members. The Court opined that nothing in the language of the statute mandated that a meeting occur face to face, and the distinction between in-person communications and email communications is irrelevant for the purposes of the statute. The Court reasoned that allowing public bodies to avoid the requirements of the Open Meetings Act by discussing public business via electronic communications subverts the purpose of the Act.
Ultimately, the Court agreed with White’s contention and accepted that “[u]nder the Ohio Open Meetings Statute…liberally construed, private deliberations concerning official business are prohibited, whether such deliberations are conducted in person at an actual face-to-face meeting or by way of virtual meeting using any other form of electronic communications such as telephone, email, voicemail, or text messages.”
This decision has the effect of curtailing email conversations between and amongst members of a public body, insofar as those conversations relate to public business. Members of any public body should be advised that if their emails contain discussions regarding what would normally be considered public business, they risk violating the Act. Instead, members should limit their conversations regarding public business to open meetings only.