By Maggie Thurber | Special to Ohio Watchdog
Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted placed the Lucas County Board of Elections under administrative oversight this week, appointing two special masters to oversee the operations of the board.
In a scathing letter to the two Republican and two Democratic board members, he writes:
“In Lucas County, the internal board culture is dysfunctional. The underlying operational culture is divisive and threatening. Board members and staff refuse to communicate with others resulting in meetings and conversations that dissolve into worse than stalemate. It is clear after several attempts to work constructively with all parties, including my most recent request for cooperation; this board is unable to meet the minimum operational standards we expect as we prepare for presidential election.
“The voters of Ohio, Lucas County, and as Secretary of State, will tolerate this dysfunction no longer.
“Should any of you choose to resign, I will work with the former member’s respective political party to find a suitable, community-minded, public servant to appoint to the balance of your term.
“I am loathe to take this action: it comes only after having given you, and your cohorts, every possible opportunity and assistance through two state elections to provide local solutions to local problems.”
Following the announcement of the administrative oversight, local Republican clubs sent a letter to Husted welcoming his involvement and oversight and asked him to replace all four BOE members along with the director and deputy director:
“Time-and-time again, you have given the Board ultimatums. These attempts to remedy the situation have not worked. Now, they have 15 days to come to a compromise and settle their differences on adopting an organization chart and position descriptions. It is doubtful that they will accomplish this task.
“Therefore, we request that you, as Secretary of State, remove the four Board members as well as the Director and Deputy Director as soon as possible.
“Realizing that there’s an extremely important national election in November; timing is very important. Action should be taken swiftly to ensure that there are persons in place who can carry the Board’s duties.”
The letter was signed by representatives of the Maumee Republican Club, Fallen Timbers Republican Club, Greater Toledo Republican Club and Northwest Ohio Conservative Coalition.
At Tuesday’s BOE meeting, 15 members of the clubs tried to read the letter into the minutes.
They were not allowed.
At the start of the meeting, Board Chairman Democrat Ron Rothenbuler asked that members of the public wait until after the regular agenda, including an executive session, to speak. He said, “If we’re going to do public speaking … then do it in an orderly fashion.”
The meeting proceeded and then the board went into executive session to discuss pending litigation. Upon exiting the executive session, the board heard the director’s report and then Rothenbuler made an announcement:
“I have consulting with legal counsel for the Lucas County Board of Elections and I’ve been advised that there is no policy for public speaking for the audience. So, therefore, based on the fact that there’s no policy and there’s no public speaking allocation in effect, that there will be no public speaking. The board has looked at a policy but has yet to adopt one.”
Yes, because the board didn’t have a policy, members of the public were not allowed to speak.
And the only time such discussion about public commentary could have taken place was during the executive session.
Ohio Revised Code is specific regarding public meetings and executive session. The Attorney General’s Office publishes a Yellow Book that details the public records and open meetings laws, and requires public officials subject to the rules to participate in yearly training.
The book details the only allowable reasons for executive session, which are to discuss:
- Certain personnel matters, like hiring and firing, and the exact reason must be noted when making the motion to enter executive session.
- The purchase or sale of property.
- Pending or imminent court action.
- Collective bargaining matters such as strategy for upcoming negotiations.
- Matters which federal or state laws or rules require to be kept confidential.
- Security matters that, if disclosed, could jeopardize the security of the public body.
- Hospital trade secrets.
- Applications for assistance submitted to the Veterans Services Commission. These are required by law to be considered in executive session unless the applicant requests it be done in a public session.
Since discussion of a policy for public comment is not one of the authorized reasons, did the Lucas County BOE violate the sunshine law? Additionally, are they in violation for not listing discussion of the policy as part of the motion to enter into executive session?
Fortunately, Ohio law is on the side of the public and any resident has standing to challenge a board’s potential violation of the open meetings law. If anyone decides to seek a court injunction, the board could face a civil forfeiture of $500 — they don’t call it a fine — and could be ordered to pay court costs and attorney fees.
The BOE members could have agreed that they would allow a set amount of time to public comment and, since they didn’t have a policy, they could have instructed the staff to prepare one for approval.
Sadly, BOE’s failure to handle something as simple as a public comment period properly is just a further demonstration of its dysfunction.