Geauga park board continues ban on public comments

Chagrin Valley Times

August 23, 2018

by Krista S. Kano

Although there were recent indications that the Geauga Park District Board of Commissioners were relaxing their ban of public comments during meetings, Board President Andrej Lah firmly stated last week that the policy would continue, causing critics to question when that decision was made and whether the board violated Ohio’s Sunshine laws.

“We have received a request to add a few minutes of discussion from a member of the public during our meeting today,” Mr. Lah said during the Aug. 15 board meeting. “I think we have established a precedence that those types of items to be discussed should be submitted in writing to the executive director and then he will respond or whoever he delegates it to, he or she, will respond appropriately. As far as the public is concerned, there are plenty of avenues to obtain that information through public records requests, so we are going to leave our meetings the way they are going.”

The referenced request was from Protect Geauga Parks President Kathryn Hanratty. The conservation group has been critical of the park’s ban on public comment.

“It was not a surprise,” Protect Trustee Barbara Partington said. “It was disappointing that (Mr. Lah) doesn’t understand public comment for public organizations is good practice. There are no other districts that don’t allow public comment, and there are no other organizations in Geauga County that don’t allow it.”

In an email sent Aug. 8 to the three commissioners and Executive Director John Oros, Ms. Hanratty wrote, “I respectfully request to be placed on the agenda at the next Geauga Park District Board meeting August 15 th 2018. My comments or questions will take no more than 3 minutes.”

The Aug. 15 meeting began, as usual, with the Pledge of Allegiance followed by the board adjourning to executive session to discuss purchase of property, according to Mr. Oros. When the three board members returned from executive session, they said that they had nothing to report.

Board members did not discuss Ms. Hanratty’s request during the regular meeting.

“After the meeting I stopped Mr. Lah and asked when the board had met to discuss the decision to refuse to allow time on the agenda,” Ms. Hanratty wrote in a later email. “There had been no discussion on that topic until Mr. Lah made his announcement of the decision. He responded, ‘In Executive session, I saw your email, we took five minutes in executive session to discuss and made that decision.’ I asked again, ‘so is that when you decided?’ and he said ‘Yes, in executive session.’ Then he smirked and said ‘I look forward to seeing your article.’”

According to Ohio’s open meetings regulations, known as Sunshine Laws, public boards must state what is to be discussed before conducting closed-door sessions.

“That’s not the reason they went into executive session, but it’s a violation of Sunshine Laws,” Ms. Hanratty said following the meeting. “It’s not something they can discuss privately and it’s a fairly big decision to make without allowing the public to know why you made it.”

Mr. Lah denied the Times an in-person request for comment, and did not respond to an email request for comment.

“We’ve said if you want to communicate with us, there are plenty of avenues – email, call me, public records request – and it’s a determination of the board, so that’s where we’re at,” Mr. Oros said in an interview about the request for information. “We’ve got a number of different avenues for doing that, and we sent out a flier about every different way they can communicate with us.”

Mr. Oros was then asked by the Times if Ms. Hanratty’s request was discussed in executive session, and Mr. Oros responded “I can’t speak for (Mr. Lah). I don’t know what he said.” He was asked again if it was discussed in executive session and Mr. Oros said, “No, because we went in for that acquisition of property and with Sunshine Laws you can only discuss certain things.”

Mr. Oros was asked to confirm that Ms. Hanratty’s request was not discussed in the executive session. He told the Times, “I’m not going to speak for (Mr. Lah) and what did or did not happen in executive session. Do a public records (request). I don’t even have to stand here and talk to you.”

According to the Sunshine Law portion of the Ohio Revised code, only certain topics are allowed to be discussed in executive session, including employee matters, purchase of property, conferences with attorneys, employee negotiations, confidential matters, security arrangements, hospital matters and marketing plans. The matter of Ms. Hanratty’s request for public comment does not fall into any of those permitted categories.

“Our advice is, whether it be at the beginning or end of a meeting, you should allow for some sort of public comment, but it is not legally required,” Geauga County Prosecutor James Flaiz said in a phone interview. “The reason that’s our position, at the end of the day we work for the public and we’re there to serve the public interest, so it’s important that if the public is going to attend a meeting and engage in government, they should be permitted to provide input to the people that are serving them.”

The public comment portion of the Geauga Park District meetings were eliminated in July of 2016 by the three park commissioners at the time including Jackie Dottore (current vice president of the board), Bill Gertz (who was replaced by Mr. Lah in January 2017) and Len Barker (who was replaced by Howard Bates in December 2017).

In February, shortly after Mr. Lah took over as board president, Mr. Oros read a memo stating, “Since our last meeting, Board President Andrej Lah and I had a discussion regarding the possibility of the Board of Park Commissioners receiving questions in writing from the public and generating answers. Should we move forward, we propose questions be submitted in writing to give the board adequate time to prepare answers.

“In order to control the business of the meetings, this is not a time for public input during the meeting, rather a time for the board to answer the questions they received prior to the meeting. The questions would be answered during a pre-determined amount of time during commissioner’s time, as listed on the monthly agenda.”

At that meeting, Mrs. Dottore raised concerns about the process, specifically how the board would determine which questions are answered, how many questions would be answered at each meeting and the deadline for submitting questions. Mr. Oros said that he and board Secretary Sheryl Hatridge would draft a list of guidelines, which would be sent to commissioners for review prior to being posted on the parks’ website.

Last month Protect Geauga Parks member Barbara Partington raised her hand in a discussion regarding budget projections, when board vice president Jackie Dottore questioned why the district does five-year projections while school boards typically do 10-year projections. Mr. Lah called on Mrs. Partington who then explained that historically, the district has done five-year projections because their levies are for shorter durations than school levies. At the time, Mrs. Partington said “I don’t see this as a victory,” because other people were not given the opportunity to speak. In a phone interview, Mrs. Partington said that Mr. Lah has allowed her to make a comment “a couple times” in the last six months.

The Times submitted a public records request to the park district on Aug. 16 seeking information about the executive session and other documents. Mr. Oros responded in an email that the district was working on the request. As of publication, the requested documents have not been received.

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