Three Republican County Councilmen Can Meet Secretly Whenever They Want

In all the articles in the Plain Dealer about the current open meeting examination with the new County Council, I have not seen any discussion of or explanation of the open meeting requirements, period. You can see all the PD pieces here.  No sidebar links, no three or four sentence paragraph explaining them, just assertions that the rules have been broken.

I know some PD folks read this blog and if in fact I’ve missed an explanation about open meetings law that you’ve run, I would be grateful for a correction – and I offer my apologies in advance.  You know how inadequate that search function on cleveland.com is – but I could not find anything that looked like an explanation of open meetings law in relation to the County Council.

For now, here is a very simple FAQ from the Ohio Attorney General’s office about open meetings law in Ohio.

My understanding, based on my experience on a city council in addition to that FAQ and other Sunshine law information available, is that no more than five county council members can meet outside of a public meeting and without all the attendant open meeting requirements.  This is what has given rise, at least in part, to the concern over a not public meeting between more than five of the Democrats on the County Council.

Yet one key piece of information has never, from what I have seen, been mentioned in any of these articles, and I believe it’s a significant and material fact: with only three Republican members of the County Council, those three can meet anytime, anywhere and about anything including County Council business without ever telling anyone or making their conversations public.

No where has the PD written that they’ve asked those three members if they’ve communicated about county business when not in the presence of the public or not in the presence of the Democrats, one, two or more (if it’s three or more, that would violate the open meetings law again).

I’m not saying that they have – I have no knowledge.  I’m also not saying that they shouldn’t.  What I’m saying is that as far as reporting goes and the constant suggestion that all is equal in this matter, well – that’s just not a complete or accurate portrayal of how this works, based again on my knowledge and experience (and if this is wrong, again, someone chime in):

The three Republicans, as a caucus, can meet without worrying about open meetings law because there are only three of them.  The Democrats, of which there are eight, will never have that ability – because there are more than five of them.

Shouldn’t any journalist reporting on the carrying out or violating of the open meetings law explain this further, rather than give a very one-sided peek into how elected officials of political subdivisions try to function?

Just because the Democrats in the County Council may not be saints for what they did, without outlining why this issue does not even exist for the three Republicans is a disservice to readers and voters.

The Plain Dealer should be noting, especially in every single article attacking the lack of openness with which some of the County Council members have tried to pursue deliberations, where readers and voters can find the open meetings law, its basic requirements and the fact that the three Republicans, being only three, will never be under the same constraints in terms of getting on the same page with one another, that the Democrats have – since there are eight of them, unless they agree and tell us that they agree to hold themselves, even only numbering three, to the exact same expectations as the Democrats.

Then tell us if and how those three Republicans are communicating with just one another since election day.  Shouldn’t we know that too?

That would give us a fair barometer for examining all of the newly elected officials in regard to their promises about transparency and openness.

Edited in: By the way, blogs are often ragged on because they “lack filters.” Well, in my opinion, the omission of this information regarding how the Republicans are communicating with one another is an example of how the traditional media filters work.  I really hope I am wrong and that information has been in the PD repeatedly, so that we can see that the Democrats aren’t being attacked unfairly or overzealously and that the PD is pressing the three Republicans equally in regard to disclosing any and all non-public meetings they’ve been doing about county council business.  Unless then the protection of the open meetings law is felt, by the PD, to be adequate enough to exempt those three – even if the spirit is supposed to be about favoring openness.

Another edit in: This is the kind of thing that really makes me think, “HOW BIASED!”  So – there’s been no mention of what the open meetings law really requires and no sidebar in the PD about it.  But today, there IS a sidebar about how to recall county council members.  Come on PD.  Tell us: did you ask the three Republicans what they’ve been doing for communicating since November 2?  Have you asked them if they’ve discussed county council business among the three of them and not in public?  When are you going to tell the readers that while the law allows them to do that because there are only three of them, that they too should be held to the same expectation of openness that you are suggesting must be demanded of the eight other elected officials – all of whom happen to be Democrats?

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14 thoughts on “Three Republican County Councilmen Can Meet Secretly Whenever They Want

  1. Hi John,

    Give that I do write like I talk, I am EXTREMELY thrilled and impressed that you picked out what I would agree is really the most important part of my rambling: the coverage has been fine – I just want more. :) And the more I’d like, as reflected in what you excerpted out, is 1) educating the PD’s readers a bit more about the open meetings law 2) investigating and reporting on what the other political bloc plans to do and 3) investigating and exposing, perhaps in more of a series (?!) a catalogue of the old habits we’re going to see that need to be broken – this is not going to be the only one, I’m sure. Hiring, contracting, campaign finance, etc. – I actually think that could be a great two or three or four article series re: what are other potential hotspots where how the 57 cities have carried out business that really should not carry over – and in fact should not be going on at all?

    Done that way, no one has to wait for someone to screw up and then make it all personal (even if it is – that can be left to the readers and voters to judge) but we can ALL be watchdogs.

    Thanks – I think that collection of items is nicely done, FWIW.

  2. It was the very fact that the Council election wasn’t non-partisan that set up this issue. Unfortunately for the PD, Dolan and a majority of Republicans weren’t elected. G-d knows the PD tried.

  3. Pingback: Chagrin Valley Times’ Editor Cites Kasich, Grendell as Government “…of the politicians, for the politicians and by the politicians” : Writes Like She Talks

  4. Bill, Roger – others reading –

    Short version: The wrongness of what C. Ellen et al did does not obviate the need for the PD to hold the others’ feet to the fire, as balanced reporting. They have not provided that reporting over the course of the week and while publishing multiple articles on the same story. This is what I am saying, this is what upsets me, this is what I believe needs to be corrected and this is what I believe would be additive. I’m not saying any of what has been reported is wrong. I’m saying by their omission, they’ve given safe haven to the three Republicans – we should be objecting to that and getting answers to very simply and really not even that many questions from them about what they will be doing as a political bloc in terms of meeting and transparency.

    I absolutely 100% lament the failure of those who gathered improperly to have done so, to not have all acknowledged that it was a mistake, to not all apologize and demonstrably indicate what they intend to do about it from here on out.

    Under no circumstances should my focus on the Plain Dealer’s failure – near absolute failure – to explain open meetings law and apply it to their investigating and reporting of all 11 electeds be construed to give ANYONE a pass. I give NO one a pass. And I personally have been mocked, on the record, for both even using the word transparency in emphasizing why I do what I do in my role as a city council member, and in my specific actions geared toward providing transparency. Stories, toes, curled, not for this post or before my City’s holiday party tonight. ;)

    However, given how easily this could be remedied – by electeds maintaining online public schedules, for example – the omission by the PD of any discussion about how open meetings law is different for a political party whose bloc is in the minority leads to a perception of their bias. That could so easily have been avoided by simply spending a paragraph or two on specifically asking and reporting on the answers of all the electeds, not just the Democrats.

    It is this bias in coverage that angers me at the moment. :) To suggest that I’m not angry about anything else – you’ve read my blog long enough to know that I very regularly leave the obvious objects of our anger to all the other blogs – I pick up on what no one else is pointing to. This is a perfect example of that, IMO.

    And I want to add some other thoughts in support of how much more reporting – and more fair reporting on the issue – not just the personalities and the individuals – could be done, because I think voters should know how this all works while reading other information that they will use to eventually draw conclusions about people (do you have any idea how many voters have no idea whatsover that no more than three city council members (on a council of 7) can be together and talk city business without being in public? Then check this out with the big proponents of running a city more like a private company – they are appalled and often struck silent when thinking about this; just look at John Kasich and consider what coverage the PD will be giving ALL the new statewides – esp. the greenest one, Mandel):

    Imagine if there 5 Dems 5 GOP and 1 independent – then everyone could more or less meet in private and legally so, and meaning, if the spirit of the thing (transparency, openness) is what’s important, what would the PD be doing with its coverage?

    What if there were 3 GOP, 3 Dems and 5 independents? Again – every bloc can meet secretly – how would the PD cover that?

    What if there were 3 GOP, 3 Dems and one each of other parties – then how would transparency and openness be covered?

    So – it’s not just that something happened that shouldn’t have and it got covered. This issue of open meetings is a HUGE flashpoint. IMO, it deserves more coverage – because it gets used as a whipping boy – which is FINE, people SHOULD be whipped over it, figuratively speaking.

    But the harm and the impropriety here is that a journalistic outlet, the PD, has omitted material information about how these things function and in the process have produced coverage that easily gives the perception, through reportorial omission, that the brand new shiny non-Democrats – the ones whom the PD reports “joke” about not having met as a caucus – are not reported on at all in terms of what they plan on doing, as a political bloc or otherwise in terms of meeting.

    As I wrote at the top of this comment, The wrongness of what C. Ellen et al did does not obviate the need for the PD to hold the others’ feet to the fire, as balanced reporting. This is what I am saying.

    That imbalance in reporting is what I’m upset about and I think it’s a legitimate concern because of the perception that imbalance leads to in glomming onto “Democrats: bad! corrupt!”

    But nothing any one or more of the county council members did absolves the PD of NOT asking these questions of the Republican trio.

    And let’s keep going – why didn’t the architects of the new county council make the council non-partisan? Hm? Then there’d be no issue re: party caucusing.

    The PD’s bias – intentional or not – is glaring in this by virtue of their failure to grill and report with identical treatment of both parties, all electeds.

    When will they check out the feeding ground to the county council – the 50+ city councils – 16 or 17 of which are headed by Republicans.

    In reality and through perception, the PD is positing the idea that Republicans would never do what these Democrats have done (in fact, they’d laugh about it, as is insinuated in the one article about the three Republicans elected to the county council) if they were in the majority, – and of course we’ll never know. But the PD fails because they don’t ask the question and report on the answer: what ARE they doing and going to do, as a political bloc of three that can legally meet secretly?

    That this is not obvious to their own writers and editors is what is so aggravating.

    And that they don’t analyze to say what the solutions could and should be – how hard is it to write an article or editorial about all the ways this could be solved, especially in this era of open government and web 2.0 melding with gov 2.0?

    Ed Fitzgerald actually gave the best quote on this so far at WCPN (http://www.wcpn.org/WCPN/news/33245) which I believe really portrays what is going on without demonizing and calling for recalls (which is ridiculous at this point):

    “Experience is good, but if you have experience with an old system where you were able to get away with certain stuff, you have to make sure that you don’t bring that baggage into the new system. It’s going to take a while for people to get used to that.”

    WORD, Ed, WORD.

    What that demands, if the PD is taking it on fairly, is to review who came from the old system and what the system was that they functioned in – and who else was in that system enforcing the willful and acceptable habit of ignoring the law and transparency in general.

    In other words, the PD needs to be more engaged, itself, in blanketing our local political subdivisions with sunshine. And not just writing about it when it crops up and makes good if not reliable political fodder.

  5. Hey Jill. I really think we are missing a bigger story here. The problem I have with the whole story is the failure of C. Ellen to even acknowledge there is a question here. The voters of Cuyahoga county are legitimately shell shocked by the avalanche of self-serving back room deals that just keep flowing out of the court documents and the media. People have pled guilty to providing MILLIONS OF DOLLARS in kick-backs to various county officials and the voters are truly fed up. I find it tragic at best that the first real story out of the “reform” government is that the soon-to-be-sworn in Democrats are meeting behind closed doors to carve up the first apple. It truly is troubling that the Democrats involved don’t see that this perception of back door meetings is truly a problem. Bill O’Neill, RN

  6. The PD is indeed covering a political story, much of which the newspaper is creating for its own purposes. The newspaper is also destroying any opportunity of progress by egging on those who want to wreak havoc by recalling newly elected council people even before they take office. So much for giving the new form of government a chance!

    The private meeting was, as I understand it, to iron out intra-party conflict. That a gate crasher (doesn’t matter of which party) was allowed to stay was wrong. Everybody should apologize, make nice, and get on with business!

  7. I think Roger is correct. The PD is writing about the politics.

    However, I believe the paper is overplaying the story.

    A good example was the large front page photo of someone berating Miller.

    There’s an element of intimidation in that kind of coverage. We’re going to tell you who is boss here.

    Meanwhile, too much of importance is NOT being addressed by the newspaper.

  8. I do want to add that as someone who is an elected offcials subject to the open meetings law, I live this, Roger – and I am quite certain that the PD has chosen to ignore the extent to which this law is flouted resoundingly around NE Ohio.

  9. Roger – thanks so much for this comment.

    I am unhappy about the PD’s omission of saying what the others who could caucus will do and should do.

    I want better coverage. And without covering the analogous caucus, the reporting is incomplete.

    As for my opinion about the politics involved and the legalities, I’m definitely still publicly silent. :)

  10. Jill, you know that I respect you tremendously, both your mind and your heart, but I think on this issue you have lost your way. You and C. Ellen Connally have both made the same fatal mistake in understanding the nature of the uproar about the so-called “secret meeting” — it’s not about the law, it’s about politics. And whether the “secret meeting” was technically legal is not the issue that’s driving this bus; holding it exhibited exceedingly poor judgment in this current post-corruption scandal (assuming we can even characterize it as being in the past) political environment. It makes those that attended look drastically out-of-touch with the voters and the spirit of a new kind of county politics that must shed the past (current) difficulties — which the new County Executive has taken great pains to achieve at least in form, if not yet in substance. Whether fair or not, it opens the attendees to this secret meeting up to the attacks they are under now. The smart play would have been to never put themselves in that position in the first place – now that the toothpaste is out of the tube, hiding behind legal technicalities only compounds the damage. Defending the meeting on legal grounds is pointless and futile because it doesn’t address the source of the outrage. In short, while the “secret meetings” may be legally defensible, they were a stupid, stupid, stupid thing to do politically. Attempting to mount a defense to that stupidity by now urging the PD to explore whether the Republicans are communicating in secret too; and relying on a perceived built-in unfairness because they can meet without running afoul of the technical legal requirements of the open meetings law only exacerbates that politicaly stupidty. Please take a step back from this and rethink it, as I believe making such an argument from your position of influence and credibility may cause unintended harm to the interests you care about. As I often tell my clients; there are many “wrongs” that are not illegal or legally actionable. The converse is also true: just because it’s not illegal, doesn’t mean it’s right.

    As for the PDs coverage — while I’m certainly one of the last people who would ever defend the PD on much of anything; I think the source of much of your criticism of the coverage results from your focusing on the legal aspects of this case and not seeing the bigger picture. The PD is covering a political story, not a legal one.

  11. Thanks, Jeff and Roldo. I just sent a letter to the editor about this (much more succinct and formal of course. ;)

    Additionally, I just get so angry reading this in the 11/27 PD article that is dedicated to profiling the three Republican council members – one of whom, btw, is my county council rep:

    The discussion at the newspaper, they said, was their first real meeting together. The only other times they have been together were for transition meetings that also included Democratic council members and at a Republican Party election night gathering, they said.

    “We haven’t caucused,” joked Gallagher, playing off of a planned, but canceled, Democratic council caucus to select a council president.

    They report him as joking about this? So it’s okay to make fun of something that was contemplated as being done by others but now the PD is writing about it as though it’s worthy of being recalled? (Harlan Spector’s story which is dated today but does not appear to be in the print version – I will have to check the front section again just to be sure I didn’t miss it – has a sidebar about how to recall county council members).

    Ugh.

  12. The Plain Dealer is not about to allow the people elected to the Cuyahoga County Council to organize and do their job.

    The PD has been on a scandal binge and cannot let go. They want new scalps for their trophy room.

    The paper simply has to overplay story after story much like a binge drinker who can’t stop.

    You call them on an important point Jill.

    I think the Pee Dee believes it, not who the voters have chosen, has been elected to decide.

    The paper is acting imperiously and it is damaging what it seems to want to reform. It simply adds to the cynicism created by the scandals.

    Meanwhile, it conveniently fails to follow the big money being given private interests via government subsidies, far, far greater than the thievery of our corrupt County politicians.

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