For years, Milford’s city council routinely and systematically engaged in illegal closed-door meetings in violation both of the city’s charter and Ohio’s Open Meetings Act. On Tuesday, I reached an agreement with the city settling a lawsuit I filed in response to such violations that has now put a legal end to the practice.
I’ve called Milford home for nearly half my life. As a child, I remember my parents – my dad was a volunteer firefighter and my mom a Milford EMT – dashing off to emergencies. My grandparents lived and died here. When my husband and I moved back to Milford in 2011, it felt like coming home.
As a former reporter with The Enquirer, I held officials in local communities accountable to Ohio’s Sunshine Laws, which guarantees the public unfettered access to public meetings and public documents.
And yet, I didn’t pay much attention to my own hometown government. Milford is a sleepy community of some 6,700 residents, a place where Main Street still looks as if it were plucked from a Norman Rockwell painting. What could happen here?
Plenty, as it turned out.
In February 2015, council rejected a zoning proposal that would have ushered in a hotly contested apartment complex at Milford Main, the former site of a century-old school building at the Five Points intersection.
The 3.5-acre property, situated at the gateway to Historic Milford, is considered to be among the city’s most high-profile locations. Development of this property will have a direct economic and social impact on residents, who deserved to be part of the city’s discussions on whether the city should acquire it and how it would be used.
Instead, beginning in March 2015, council chose to deliberate on the future of Milford Main in a more than yearlong series of coordinated, secretive and illegal closed-door meetings that were anything but transparent.
Evidence provided by the city via public records requests indisputably proves that council acted in violation of both its city charter and state law. So too do public records that the city failed or refused to provide, which were later obtained by subpoena.
Among those records include emails sent by Mayor Laurie Howland via a private email account in which she schemed with members of a neighboring church interested in paving over more than half of the prime piece of city-owned real estate for a parking lot.
This occurred despite a letter received Aug. 26 from the Freedom From Religion Foundation warning city officials that the proposed “sweetheart deal” with the church would violate both the U.S. and Ohio constitutions and “invite avoidable litigation.”
What’s more, Howland’s emails directly contradict public statements she made at the time to The Enquirer and in a July 19 public council meeting denying any such communications were taking place.
Other top-secret issues sending Milford’s leaders into the bunker? Zoning changes. Parking lot lease deals. A parks levy. All issues that, by law, should have been discussed openly.
While many of the violations in my lawsuit centered on Milford Main, I also discovered other unrelated infractions, including council’s tradition of voting by secret ballot and an illegal closed-door deliberation regarding an economic deal with Symmes Twp., among others.
My purpose in filing the lawsuit was to ensure that these kinds of illegal and secretive actions are not repeated by this or future city councils. Among the settlement terms:
– While council should have arguably already been following laws governing open meetings, the settlement now legally compels them to do so;
– Ohio requires elected officials to undergo open government training, but officials don’t have to personally attend and can instead send a “designee,” such as a city clerk. This settlement requires all Milford council members to personally attend a “remedial training session” on Ohio’s Sunshine Laws within 12 months;
– Council is now forbidden from using personal email accounts to conduct public city business and must instead use only their official, city-provided email accounts. This requirement ensures that Milford’s public records remain public and preserved;
– Council is prohibited from voting by secret ballot on any issue.
Milford officials have written off the settlement as simply an end to a nuisance claim, but council could have easily – and more cheaply – settled the lawsuit soon after it was filed by simply committing to a more open and transparent government.
Instead, city leaders chose to engage in a months-long legal war in which they claimed to be bulletproof from any public inquiry or litigation – a battle which they ultimately largely lost – before seeking to settle the suit.
As a result, the city will reimburse my attorneys $36,000 in legal fees. I am to receive $500, which I will donate to CASA for Clermont Kids, a nonprofit organization advocating for children in foster care due to abuse or neglect.
The real winners in this settlement? Milford residents, who have the right to know what their government is doing.
Rachel Richardson is a freelance journalist and communications professional who lives in Milford.