Cuyahoga Falls -- City Council on Sept. 12 unanimously approved legislation to let the sun shine on the members' pregame huddles.

The players, the Democrat and Republican members of Council, have been meeting prior to Council meetings in political caucuses to discuss issues that need to be tackled in the city and to go over the game plan for that evening's meeting.

Often, the time is used to familiarize new members with meeting practices and procedures including the proper time to make a motion, second a motion or give remarks before a vote.

Councilman Vince Rubino (D-1) said he feels these meetings are a violation of the Ohio Sunshine Law.

Rubino and Carol Klinger (R-At large) cosponsored legislation to remove the words "political caucuses" from exceptions to rules of meeting in public session. Prior to the vote, the section of the codified ordinances read:

"With the exception of political caucuses and executive sessions of municipal bodies all meetings and deliberations of any municipal body upon any official business or leading to official action shall be conducted in meetings open to the public."

Rubino said this was an effort to align the city's ordinances with a July 1 legal opinion of City Law Director Russ Balthis. Citing the Ohio Open Meetings Act, the opinion advises that a political caucus meeting consisting of a majority of City Council members or any of its committees or sub-committees should be open to the public, Rubino said.

"I agree with that concept and feel that eliminating the previous home rule exemption will further assure city council's commitment in favor of openness," Rubino said.

The state Attorney General's Office declined to give the city law department an opinion on private political caucus meetings, Balthis said at a Sept. 6 Council committee meeting. "So we did our own research [and found that] the meetings are not permitted under Ohio Public Record Laws and those laws should apply to the meetings of this Council."

Klinger called Council's action a "housekeeping issue."

In his legal opinion, Balthis said the Ohio Supreme Court has long blocked attempts to circumvent the Open Meetings Act and has enforced the law upon governing bodies. He cited a 2016 case, White v. King, where the Court ruled group emails can constitute a meeting by public officials.

"The Court has said, 'The statute that exists to shed light on deliberations of public bodies cannot be interpreted in a manner which would result in the public being left in the dark,'" Balthis wrote, citing a 1996 case, State ex rel. Cincinnati Post v. City of Cincinnati.

Rubino said anyone who has been in the hallway outside of council chambers in the Natatorium over the years may have observed that there are rooms labeled the Lincoln Room and the Jefferson Room.

"Traditionally, the respective political party caucuses have been held in those rooms," he said. "It may be time to turn the page." Rubino said he believes members of Council can work together to "create a more open identity that is less about partisan politics and more about effectively governing the city."

When the Republicans took control of City Council in January 2014 after eight years under Democratic control, Rubino proposed caucuses not be attended by a majority of either council or committee members. At the beginning of that year, Republicans began having one person sit out during caucus so there would not be a majority in the room.


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