Ohio recently had “Sunshine Week“- where the Ohio AG and newspapers around the state revel in the idea that this State believes in open meetings, government transparency and public records requests being filled promptly and legally. After 25+ years of finding just the opposite, I submitted this op-ed piece to the Dayton Daily newsless- where it’s against corporate policy to publish my name. So, I’ll just share it here:
In Florida, the “Sunshine State” you can read about many public officials being removed from office for violations of their Sunshine laws. That doesn’t happen in Ohio, and no matter what the “Yellow Book” says, Ohio’s Sunshine laws are built to only do two things: pay lawyers and protect public officials. It’s time for a radical overhaul of these laws so that the burden of enforcement isn’t on private citizens via the courts.
I’m speaking from hard learned experience in fighting for open transparent government. My first protest has defined me as either crazy or a ninja- or both. Back in 1995 I was a regular at Dayton City Commission meetings, which were held every Wednesday, revolving between night and morning meetings. At first, there was no time limit on public comments, then there was 3 minutes, and eventually a podium with a traffic light to tell you your time status. The reality is, no matter what you said, most were never given a public response, and there was no respectful interaction.
I’d come to an evening meeting, equipped with a large blank “Time Card” to discuss how the trash collectors were getting paid for 56 hours work, while actually working about 30. Cut off at 3 minutes, I said I’d be back next week to finish up. The next Monday afternoon, Dayton Daily News Reporter Laura Bischoff called me at work to ask what I thought of the Commissions plans to limit citizen participation? I was mystified, I go to all the meetings, this had never been discussed. She then faxed over a list of 28 options to limit or eliminate public participation, including many that made sure the speakers face wouldn’t be on camera. I said, and it appeared in the next morning’s paper, “It’s pretty obvious they don’t want to see the face of the people they represent.” I was also livid about the private meeting. Apparently, the Commission would fax out an emergency notice at the end of the day Friday, calling for a “work session” on Mondays. The City Charter clearly says that the business of the city was to be taken care of at a single meeting each week, on Wednesday.
I called the Chief of Police and warned him that I would don a black balaclava at the following morning meeting. The next morning, after the Pledge and Invocation, I sat down in my normal seat, placed the mask over my face and didn’t move. Two and half years later, after they had jailed me and charged me with 4 bogus fourth degree misdemeanors, the city settled my civil rights suit for $100,000. Most of it went to lawyers. Sadly the city continues to hold the illegal work sessions where the real business of Dayton is taken care of in relative secrecy.
I learned a lot about the public meetings laws and the courts from that protest. So when I stood my ground and wouldn’t shut my video camera off when the Dayton Public Schools tried to illegally have secret meetings to close and sell off schools, I knew what was coming. The schools spent a lot of tax money defending themselves. Judge Richard Skelton failed the public miserably by refusing to review video evidence and allowed the DPS lawyers to lie about its very existence. All of this, because the maximum fine per occurrence is only $500 and the court filing costs are almost ¾ of that. Lawyers can run up bills to charge against the violator, but, if you do it yourself, you can’t bill for time- but the lawyers hired by the school board can recklessly keep filing and delaying- at the public’s expense to protect elected violators.
When I was kicked out of the Dayton Metro Library for legally taking photos in a public place, the Library and their lawyers, Mat Heck’s prosecutors, used the same tactic to delay and cost me more in legal fees since I had a lawyer. Unfortunately, despite winning the case, Judge Gerald Parker decided to not award my legal fees, and the price of delaying delivery of the video requested by a public records request is $100 a day- and capped for only 10 days. So, 1300+ days later, when I still don’t have the video, they didn’t have to pay much. I did.
While I had a 2-year limit on filing in Federal Court for a civil rights trial, they still hadn’t delivered the surveillance video. I settled the case I filed myself, for $35K because I still had not seen the evidence that I would have needed. What’s even worse is Parker allowed the library and the prosecutor to get away with perjury in court- claiming that their video system didn’t generate time code, refusing to hold a hearing so I could prove them liars.
There is no public official who works for you to enforce the Sunshine laws, unless the FBI gets involved and that’s usually about something bigger, graft or a “Culture of Corruption.”
Besides re-writing the laws (ORC 121.22) to bring clarity to what “an occurrence” is, Ohio really needs to start electing “chief ethics officers” whose job it would be to help citizens investigate and charge public officials with violations of these laws. We elect a coroner to make sure people are dead, why shouldn’t we have someone to deal with elected officials who we have dead to rights as violators of the Sunshine Laws?