On the topic of open government

By Gary Abernathy - [email protected]

Two stories last week spoke to the issue of openness in government and accountability by public officials, each representing opposite ends of the spectrum.

On one end of the spectrum, The Times-Gazette reported that Gary Lewis, the city auditor, is participating in an initiative by state Treasurer Josh Mandel to put government financial records online. City of Hillsboro receipt and expenditure records from 2012, 2013 and 2014 should be available for public viewing beginning Thursday, and subsequent years will be added as time goes by.

Gary’s voluntary participation in this program demonstrates an attitude of accountability that should be exhibited by all elected officials. To his credit, Mayor Drew Hastings suggested to Gary that he participate in this program before realizing that Gary had already signed up to do so.

In the Internet age, government bookkeeping, as well as meeting minutes and other documents, can and should be increasingly accessed online. Not only does it help keep the public informed, but speculation and rumors about government expenditures can also be verified with a few keystrokes from anyone’s computer.

On the other end of the spectrum, The Times-Gazette reported that a meeting of the Paint Creek Joint EMS/Fire Board was brought to a halt Thursday morning because, as it turns out, proper notification of the meeting was not made to the media.

As a fire and emergency medical services provider, Paint Creek has done a good job considering its rapid expansion across the county. It has provided the professional level of service it promised, and side benefits, such as an even better ISO insurance rating for Hillsboro and other places, are evidence of its effectiveness. But its board is still in the learning phase.

When I received a tip that Thursday’s meeting was happening, I called reporter Angela Shepherd, who was in Greenfield, and she immediately went to the meeting site. She was told that the meeting was simply to discuss general labor issues.

Later, though, Jon Salyer, the former Hillsboro police officer who now serves as Paint Creek’s human resources manager and public information officer, said that the board was about to enter into a discussion regarding the unpaid overtime controversy that was part of the controversy involving chief Bradley George, before Jon and others advised that the meeting be immediately terminated.

In my experience, Jon is one of the most open and upfront individuals anyone is likely to encounter, and can be counted on to provide accurate and honest information, wherever the chips may fall. Clearly, the board had convened to discuss more than just “general labor relations” matters, regardless of what Angela was originally told.

I don’t entirely fault the Paint Creek board for failing to properly notify the media before Thursday’s meeting. Aside from a couple of special circumstances, such as when Hillsboro engaged in its first contract with Paint Creek, the fire board has conducted its business without the media being present. It’s a relatively new board, made up of township trustees.

Through the years, many township trustee meetings have been called and conducted with no more notice than a sign posted on the meeting place door. It is not surprising, therefore, that Paint Creek board members said in their defense that a meeting notice was posted on the fire station door and one other location.

That practice was actually considered sufficient for many years, even though in theory it required interested people to stop by the meeting place every day to see if a public notice might happen to have been posted about an upcoming special meeting.

But in the Internet age, emails have become the preferred method of notification to the media, and hardly a day goes by that we don’t receive an email notification about an upcoming special meeting or committee meeting of some type from some government agency.

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine’s office provides a helpful question and answer format on its website, including an answer to a question about the notification for special meetings.

“Again, public bodies must establish a reasonable method for alerting the public to the time and place of special meetings, as well as the purpose of the meeting. At least 24 hours’ notice must be given to media outlets that have requested such notice, and only topics related to the stated purpose of the special meeting can be discussed,” according to the attorney general’s office.

Notice that the alert must go to “media outlets that have requested such notice…” Has The Times-Gazette made such a request? Not in writing. But I have asked Paint Creek officials many times to keep us informed about such things.

There is no question that the Paint Creek board leadership understands – if for no other reason than the amount of coverage we devote to Paint Creek – that The Times-Gazette has been, is now, and will be in the future interested in covering its activities, including being notified of special board meetings. Nevertheless, a request to be notified of special meetings will be put into writing to eliminate any scintilla of doubt.

With any board, it’s generally the clerk’s duty to notify the media of special meetings, and, to be fair, the Paint Creek board is on its third clerk in about as many months. As Dan Mathews, the Paint Creek president, said, “I thought the clerk had done all those things. I guess he’s new to this, too.” He promised it would not happen again.

There are boards, councils and other government bodies that have very little personal media scrutiny of their meetings, in part because of the number of government boards, councils and commissions that exist compared to the number of reporters and hours in the day that there are to cover them. All media outlets have been forced to prioritize which meetings get covered in person and which do not.

But the level of media scrutiny, large or small, does not excuse the need to notify the media and, by extension, the public of special meetings and the purposes of such meetings. I think Paint Creek’s failure to do so was an honest mistake, and I think the board will make sure it does not happen again.

Reach Gary Abernathy at 937-393-3456 or on Twitter @abernathygary.


By Gary Abernathy

[email protected]