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Law Gives Citizens Right to Attend Most Public Meetings

Q: Are all meetings of public bodies open to the public?
A:
Most of the time, most of the meetings are open when the members are discussing the public's business, but there are exceptions. The one absolute is that ALL votes must be taken at open meetings.

Q: What are those exceptions?
A:
The law permits a public body to discuss "personnel" matters in a closed meeting, including hiring, firing, promoting or demoting public employees. However, disciplining an elected official for conduct related to official business must be done in an open meeting. Other exceptions include buying or selling property, meeting with an attorney to discuss imminent or pending litigation, matters related to bargaining with unions and any other issue required to be confidential under state or federal law.

Q: What kind of public bodies are covered by this law?
A:
The law covers just about every decision-making body at every level of government that you could imagine from township trustees to school boards to the city council subcommittee on parades and celebrations. The body doesn't have to make the "final" decision on an issue. It is enough if the body makes a recommendation to another public body. The law does not apply to all meetings of groups of public officials, though. The mayor's cabinet, for example, holds meetings and makes recommendations to the mayor, but it is not constituted as a body with any legislative-type, or decision-making authority.

Q: What is the reasoning behind the exceptions to open discussions?
A:
In cases where public employees are being investigated for misconduct, the exception allows potentially embarrassing matters to be kept private before a determination is made about what action to take. If the discussion involves the sale or purchase of property, advance knowledge of the plans could adversely affect the price. Obviously, discussing litigation is very sensitive and should not be open to the opposing side. The same is true of collective bargaining where a public discussion, while it might be interesting, might not be in the best interests of the community.

Q: May I take pictures at a public meeting or record what's going on?
A:
Generally, yes, provided you don't disrupt the meeting. You have the right to attend a public meeting, but not the right to be heard at that meeting. If you are disruptive, you waive the right to remain and observe the meeting. A public body may establish reasonable rules regulating the use of audio or video equipment in order to limit interference with others' ability to hear, see and participate in the meeting. These rules may require equipment to be silent, self-contained and self-powered. So, if you are taking a picture, for example, use a camera that doesn't require a flash or make a lot of noise. It would be advisable to let the officials know in advance of your plans to record or videotape the meeting.

Q: Does the law cover all occasions when members of a legislative body get together, like three county commissioners at the county fair?
A:
The law covers "prearranged discussion of the public business of the public body." The fact that a majority of the members of such a body are in the same place at the same time does not make that gathering a public meeting. The gathering must be planned in advance for the purpose of having a meeting.

Q: How can I find out when meetings are being held?
A:
Ask to be put on the public body's meeting notice list. You can expect to pay a fee to cover the cost of having a meeting notice mailed to you or you may be required to provide self-addressed, stamped envelopes.

9/6/2011

Law You Can Use is a weekly consumer legal information column provided by the Ohio State Bar Association. This article was prepared by Timothy D. Smith, an attorney and a professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Kent State University.

Articles appearing in this column are intended to provide broad, general information about the law. Before applying this information to a specific legal problem, readers are urged to seek advice from an attorney.

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