We’re big proponents of government transparency in the best of times.
It’s even more important now that our governing boards — from councils to school boards and trustees — face an unprecedented crisis following the forced closure of our economy to cope with the coronavirus pandemic.
We only have early estimates for how badly income and sales tax revenue will plummet this year, undoubtedly creating challenging decisions about budget cuts, service reductions and layoffs. Ohio law requires local governments to balance their budgets every year.
There’s tremendous uncertainty about how quickly Ohio can reopen and when the public will be willing to open their wallets and start spending again. The longer that takes, the more challenging decisions will become. Some mayors across Ohio worry they may need to lay off police officers and firefighters.
Those choices will undoubtedly be decided in public meetings that citizens may not be able to attend in person.
When Gov. Mike DeWine issued his stay-at-home order last month, Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost issued wise guidance allowing boards who normally must meet openly in public to instead meet virtually online. Ohio lawmakers later made that law.
While virtual meetings are allowed and smart right now, the public must be able to hear all discussions and deliberations at such virtual meetings. Most are being broadcast on Zoom or YouTube.
Boards can still recess into private executive sessions if they meet the normal exceptions of Ohio’s Open Meetings law, including personnel and legal matters among others.
While most boards have quickly adapted to virtual meetings or suspended meetings unless vital matters need approval, others are testing the limits of transparency.
The worst offender so far was the Cuyahoga Falls Board of Education, which recessed into executive session on April 15 with no further business on its agenda. Most boards typically adjourn once their private conversation ends.
But this board returned, added an unexpected item to its agenda and awarded its superintendent a four year-contract extension even though his current deal expires in July 2021. Even worse, the vote was not broadcast publicly as required.
The board will properly vote on the contract extension again on May 6 while broadcasting online to make it legal.
We offer this example as a clear case of what all boards need to avoid without commenting on the merits of the contract extension itself. Agendas should not be modified at the last second unless there is a true emergency, which should be the case all of the time.
We also would urge all boards — especially Cuyahoga Falls on May 6 — to ensure public participation remains a part of their agendas regardless of the challenges it creates right now.
At the least, the board should have someone read comments it has received in advance during public sessions. Some boards are asking residents who wish to speak to register in advance so they can receive a phone call at the proper time and share their views via the live broadcast. There are plenty of ways to make it work.
The pandemic requires all of us to adapt and public debates are no exception.
But the principles of transparency are more important than ever.
— Akron Beacon Journal