The following article originally appeared on Chagrin Valley Today, the website of the Chagrin Valley Times and Geauga Times Courier. Our thanks to the Times for permission to republish the article here.
Chagrin Valley times
Posted: Thursday, April 19, 2018 12:00 am
Everyone is subject to open records and public information laws in the state. That includes citizens who serve on school boards, park boards, city councils and other public panels.
This important issue was reaffirmed recently when Jeffery W. Clark, special master for the Ohio Court of Claims, recommended that the court issue an order that Russell resident Shelley Chernin’s Aug. 14 request for a letter cited in an Aug. 8 Geauga Park District meeting be honored.
Mr. Clark said the park district violated the state’s open records law when it denied Ms. Chernin’s request for a copy of the letter. He also ordered that the park district pay Ms. Chernin’s costs linked to her eight-month legal battle.
The park board had argued that the letter read out loud during the meeting by park board member Andrej Lah did not constitute a public record. Mr. Lah claimed he could not reveal the identity of the letter writer because she feared reprisal from members of the nonprofit Protect Geauga Parks.
“She didn’t want her name to be used because she’s afraid of being harassed by a certain group,” Mr. Lah said at the Aug. 8 meeting. “Preserve, protect or whatever that’s called. She doesn’t want to be harassed by them and she’s in fear of that harassment. So, there’s also a perception that there is a particular group of people that if you have an opinion that may be a little bit different that you will be subjected to ridicule.”
That statement by Mr. Lah wasn’t accurate. Mr. Lah openly stated during the meeting that he disagreed with the court’s decision but would not appeal the matter.
He said the letter would be released to Ms. Chernin. But before that happened, Mr. Lah in a seemingly power move read the letter and the name of the writer out loud during the park board meeting.
The letter only identified the writer by her first name. “I chose just to sign my first name, as I am a little concerned about being annoyed by the group that does not want development.”
Being annoyed is far from fearing reprisal, as Mr. Lah had said.
The letter went on to discuss how Big Creek Park in Chardon is often empty. The writer offered three ideas about recreational additions that could attract families.
The letter made no mention by name of Protect Geauga Parks.
Ms. Chernin said she wanted a copy of the letter because she believes in openness and transparency in government. If the letter was important enough for Mr. Lah to raise in a public meeting, she said, then it was something that could impact public policy.
Mr. Clark in his report cited the Ohio Supreme Court’s determination that public scrutiny of public officials and their actions are necessary to allow the public to hold government accountable.
He also pointed out the dangers of a government that can withhold that type of scrutiny.
“If constituent letters summarized and relied on by a board member can be withheld from public access, then officials can bring stacks of paper to public meetings, declare that they are all letters supporting their position but refuse to allow the public to examine them for confirmation,” Mr. Clark wrote.
That sums it up nicely.