COLUMBUS, Ohio — The Ohio Supreme Court is considering whether an exchange of emails by members of a central Ohio school board violated the state open meetings law.
At issue is an October 2012 letter to the editor published with input from four members of the Olentangy school board in response to an editorial that criticized the board.
A fifth member of the board, Adam White, sued his fellow board members six months later, alleging that circulating drafts of the letter by email violated the open meetings law. That same day, April 25, 2013, the board voted at a public meeting to ratify the letter.
Events leading to the dispute began in March 2012, when White conducted an independent investigation of alleged improper spending at the district.
That September, the board voted to require that in the future, board members should communicate with district staff by going through the superintendent or treasurer first. On Oct. 11, the Columbus Dispatch published an editorial criticizing that board policy, saying board members should have some leeway in examining district finances on their own.
An email dialogue among board members began the day the editorial was published and culminated in the publication of a letter responding to the editorial on Oct. 27, according to court records. That amounted to deliberation about public business in private, violating state law, said Phil Harmon, an attorney representing White.
The fact that the board ratified the October letter the same day it was sued six months later shows the board knew its previous actions were illegal, Harmon said in a June court filing.
Unless the board’s actions are rejected by the Supreme Court, “all public bodies throughout the State of Ohio will be allowed to conduct all public business in private by email or other electronic means so long as they later ratify such private deliberations at a public meeting,” Harmon said.
The Ohio Coalition for Open Government, Common Cause Ohio, and the League of Women Voters of Ohio are all supporting White’s arguments.
A lawyer for the school board countered that the letter to the editor was simply an expression of opinion and disagreement with the editorial.
An exchange of emails cannot constitute a meeting and there was no deliberation over public business, said attorney John Albert.
“Email communication has replaced telephone calls, handwritten notes, paper letters, and personal conversations as an efficient and flexible form of communication between public servants, and their staff,” Albert wrote in a July court filing. “Emails as a form of communication have become a routine and daily activity.”
The court heard arguments last week. A decision is expected by spring.