Editorial: Sunshine law violations must be punished

A recent editorial by the Youngstown Vindicator:

The Ohio Supreme Court is weighing a case about violations of the state’s open meetings law, including specifically whether repeat violations should be punished by single or multiple $500 fines.

From our vantage point, the answer is simple.

Multiple violations should warrant multiple punishments.

Consider this. When someone commits a crime five times and is caught five times, would it be reasonable to penalize that person only once? Of course not!

Each incident deserves punishment, and frankly, we suspect most prosecutors would seek stiffer penalties for repeat offenders.

The scenario being weighed by the Ohio Supreme Court should be viewed just as simply. The case involves a Portage County man who is seeking repeat remuneration for finding multiple instances of open meeting violations.

Brian Ames of Mogadore pinpointed several suspected cases of open meeting violations by Portage County commissioners and Rootstown Township. He believes he should be entitled to payment of $500 per open meetings law violation — and frankly, he’s uncovered quite a few of them.

Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost agrees with Ames’ argument, and at this point, we do, too. Yost states someone successfully proving that an illegal meeting happened “is entitled to one $500 award for every Open Meetings Act violation proved,” as is spelled out in Ohio law.

A lawyer for Rootstown disputes that argument, however, interpreting Ohio law as requiring only one $500 fine per injunction. It comes as no surprise that the attorney’s argument also is supported by local government groups. Allowing multiple $500 fines would inspire open meetings law “bounty hunters” to bring claims against public bodies on the backs of taxpayers, according to attorneys for the local government and also some public officials in Trumbull County.

We believe citizens who take it upon themselves to patrol meetings for sunshine law violations might help remind government officials of their responsibility to the taxpayers and of the requirement for complete transparency.

… We understand these matters are still pending in court. If it is determined these sessions indeed were held improperly, however, then we believe each instance should be punished individually.

Undeniably, all government officials must be dedicated to maintaining complete transparency in public business. They must be well versed in the language of Ohio’s sunshine laws and then ensure that they live up not just to the letter of the law, but also to the spirit of the law.

When violations are found, they must be dealt with accordingly. Unfortunately, we realize that could mean taxpayers end up footing the bill for legal action and imposed fines.

When that happens, particularly repeatedly, perhaps taxpayers will take note and allow their displeasure to be reflected at the ballot box.

Further, we believe this issue should renew debate among legislators about adding sharper teeth to Ohio’s sunshine laws in order to hold more accountable those elected officials who violate those laws.

— Youngstown Vindicator, April 22