Court sides with ex-school board member in meetings case

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — The Ohio Supreme Court has overturned a lower-court decision, ruling in favor of a former central Ohio school board member who said his colleagues violated state open meetings laws while exchanging emails.

In the court’s 5-2 decision released Tuesday, Justice Terrence O’Donnell wrote that the state’s open-meetings law prohibits any private prearranged discussion of public business by a majority of the members of a public body, The Columbus Dispatch reported. The ruling allows former board member Adam White to pursue a lawsuit against the school board.

At issue is a 2012 letter to the editor published with input from four members of the Olentangy school board responding to a newspaper editorial. The Columbus Dispatch editorial criticized a board policy that said board members should communicate with district staff by going through the superintendent.

The policy the editorial was criticizing was in response to White’s independent investigation of alleged improper district spending.

White said circulating drafts of the letter by email violated open meetings law.

An attorney for the school district, John Albert of Columbus, said Tuesday the district still didn’t believe it violated the law. He said the court’s decision was a clarification of the law, not a ruling on the merits of the case.

“We look forward to returning to the trial court to defend the actions of the school district and to prevail in the underlying case,” Albert said.

White’s attorney, Phillip Harmon, said the ruling ensures the public meetings law applies to both face-to-face gatherings and virtual ones.

“We think this is an enormously important decision,” Harmon said. “Up until now government bodies could avoid the sunshine law and make decisions behind closed doors.”