Brian Ames of Portage County has been fighting for public meetings to be open for more than 20 years. He has been studying and applying the requirements in the Open Meetings Act. He’s had some success in court and in Brimfield Township, where the trustees are now being transparent about why they hold executive sessions, which are closed to the public.
“One of my primary responsibilities as Attorney General is to promote accountability from those who serve Ohioans…My office fulfills this, in part, by empowering citizens to become voluntary watchdogs through the use of a powerful tool: public records,” Attorney General Dave Yost writes.
His office created the 2019 Sunshine Laws Manual for citizen watchdogs, like Ames, as a resource on Ohio’s open-government laws. On the website, Yost says the manual is intended to help the public know their rights and the public servants understand their responsibilities.
The hope of Ames is that his work, exposing violations of the Open Records Act, will help his locally elected officials be appropriately transparent while ensuring his fellow taxpayers avoid the expensive consequences of those public servants ignoring the law. The Cincinnati “Gang of Five” City Council members, for instance, cost their taxpayers $101,000 to settle a lawsuit over their secret text messages and emails discussing city business.
The “Gang of Five,” which they call themselves, includes: Wendell Young, P.G. Sittenfeld, Tamaya Dennard, Chris Seelbach, and Greg Landsman. They were sued by Mark Miller of the Coalition Opposed to Additional Taxes and Spending (COAST).
Ames is trying to prevent similar situations in which taxpayers are stuck footing the bill while elected officials violate the Open Meetings Act. He is tackling the issue and handling the cases himself.
In November 2017, Ames sat down with the Record-Courier to explain the importance of transparency.
Right now, Ames has five cases pending before the 11th District Court of Appeals. Those five cases allege 174 violations of the Sunshine Laws by the Portage County Commissioners. According to Ames, if the commissioners were forced to pay attorneys fees like the Cincinnati Council was, it would cost them – or taxpayers – more than $8 million.
The 11th District Court has five judges and cases are heard by a panel of three. At least two of the judges have recused themselves from the case for “conflicts of interest.” If Ames cannot get three of the judges to hear his case, the court will have to bring in a visiting judge.
Ames’ greatest concern at the moment is the Portage County Solid Waste Management District Board of Commissioners. He shared with The Ohio Star that he believes the entire organization is “made up, no more real than the Easter Bunny.” He has filed two lawsuits alleging 127 violations of the Sunshine Laws and believes that there are hundreds of other violations that could affect their contract with the Teamsters Local 24.
Calls made to the Teamsters office and the three county commissioners, Sabrina Christian-Bennett, Kathleen Clyde and Vicki Kline, were not returned.
– – –