Board of Elections violated Sunshine Laws

Judge McBride issues $1,000 fine; motion to reconsider filed

The Clermont County Board of Elections has admitted to 18 violations of the Ohio Sunshine Laws and has been found guilty of an additional violation.

The ruling came in a lawsuit brought forward by a man who protested the candidacy of Gregg Conrad in 2009 and a lawyer who represented the Amelia Residents for Fiscal Responsibility in their efforts to dissolve the Village of Amelia in 2008.

Ross Hardin, of Milford, filed the lawsuit in September 2009 after he attended a July 23, 2009 Board of Elections meeting. Board Chair Tim Rudd, a Republican, stepped down from his position in 2009 during his reelection campaign for Municipal Court Clerk as required by law.
He was later named in the suit after he rejoined the Board. At the July 23 meeting the Board was discussing its quasi-judicial powers in ruling on Hardin’s protest of Gregg Conrad’s petition to run as the Democratic candidate for Municipal Court Clerk. The Board adjourned into an executive session to discuss their ability to subpoena witnesses in an upcoming hearing on the protest. Clermont Common Pleas Court Judge Jerry McBride ruled that discussing pending quasi-judicial hearings was not a quasi-judicial act and therefore the discussion was still subject to the Ohio Sunshine Laws and was not allowed to be held in executive session.

The Ohio Open Meetings Act, dubbed the Sunshine Laws, limit private discussions between public officials of the same governing body to one of seven topics. Elected officials ranging from trustees and village council members to public hospital board members can discuss appointment, compensation, and discipline of public employees, the purchase of property, pending or imminent litigation, collective bargaining agreements, confidential matters as determined by state or federal statutes, public security details, hospital trade secrets, and veterans service commission applications.

Amelia lawyer Curt Hartman also alleged the Board also violated the Sunshine Laws on August 26, 2008 when it entered an executive session to discuss the validation of signatures on a petition to place an issue on the ballot for the dissolution of the Village of Amelia. Then chair Rick Combs argued that Hartman had said he would take legal action if the signatures were not approved and therefore the executive session was held in light of imminent litigation to receive clarification on the process of reviewing the signatures from their attorney, Clermont County Assistant Prosecutor Elizabeth Mason. Combs further argued that the discussion should have remained confidential due to the attorney and client privilege.

Judge McBride ruled that while public officials are not granted attorney and client privileges they are permitted to discuss imminent litigation and there was no evidence of deliberation on the subject. He found the Aug. 26, 2008 executive session did not violate the Sunshine Laws.

Additionally Hardin argued that 18 executive sessions held between 2007 and 2009 violated a number of Sunshine Law restrictions. The Board of Elections agreed with Hardin’s allegations.

McBride awarded Hardin $500 in the July 23, 2009 instance and $500 for the additional 18 instances. Additionally he ordered the Board of Elections to follow the Sunshine Law guidelines for executive sessions in the future.

On Dec. 6 Hardin and Hartman asked Judge McBride to reconsider his decision regarding the Aug. 28, 2008 executive session. The Board of Elections filed a counter motion on Monday, Dec. 13. Judge McBride is reviewing the motions.

Hardin and Hartman received additional legal assistance from lawyers Christopher Finney and Joshua Bolinger.