Gongwer is a $2,400-a-year news provider that covers Ohio government. The Gongwer article on the judge’s court decision that the OneOhio opioid settlement board must follow open meetings law is represented below. A Columbus Dispatch story is reprinted underneath the Gongwer article.
Opioid Settlement Group Loses Open Meetings Ruling
A Franklin County judge on Thursday declined to dismiss a case against the entity charged with dispersing hundreds of millions of dollars, finding it is a public body subject to open meeting law.
Harm Reduction Ohio, an opioid-focused nonprofit, brought the case against the OneOhio Recovery Foundation before Common Pleas Judge Mark Serrott last year. (See Gongwer Ohio Report, June 23, 2022)
HRO Executive Director Dennis Cauchon alleged OneOhio failed to follow the state’s Open Meetings Act.
However, OneOhio, the group tasked with distributing hundreds of millions of Ohio’s opioid settlement money, argued it is a nonprofit not subject to such laws. It asked Judge Serrott to dismiss the case.
During an October hearing to consider the dismissal, Judge Serrott cautioned that a denial of the dismissal does not mean “I made a ruling subject to open meeting laws.” (See Gongwer Ohio Report, October 27, 2022)
However, he wrote in his ruling, “A review of the legal arguments and applicable precedent establish that the Foundation is acting as a public body and meets both the statutory criteria of R.C. 121.22 (public meetings) and the cases interpreting the statute.”
“The argument that the Foundation is a private entity not subject to the public meeting statute ignores the reality of its creation and funding,” he wrote. “The private entity argument is an illusion without substance much like the ‘Emperor’s new clothes.’ The argument is disingenuous and defies logic.”
Judge Serrott concluded that the court “would rather err on the side of open meetings allowing the public to be informed of how its government operates and spends enormous amounts of money.”
“This is especially true in the context of the thousands, if not more, of families tragically impacted by the death of loved ones from overdoses and the untold human wreckage caused by opioid addiction,” he said. “The public deserves transparency and that the Foundation conduct open meetings.”
Connie Luck, OneOhio spokesperson, wrote in a statement that OneOhio remains confident that the memorandum of understanding that created the foundation “clearly establishes the OneOhio Recovery Foundation’s status as a private, nonprofit organization, and not a government agency.”
“As the court process moves forward, the Foundation will continue to conduct its business in an open, transparent manner, as it has done since its first board meeting,” she said. “We are eager to put this resource-draining issue behind us so the Foundation can focus on its work helping to save lives in ways our state has never been able to do before.”
Mr. Cauchon took the ruling as a victory.
“This denies their defense,” he said in a Thursday interview. “Their defense was they aren’t covered by open meetings laws, and they’ve conceded they violated that law so now they have no defense.”
He said the next step is to seek a summary judgement.
“We will now file for another hearing to enforce the reasoning in this argument, and we would also specify the remedies we want, which would be the invalidation of anything that happened in closed-door meetings and covering legal fees,” he said.
Asked what decisions were made behind closed doors versus public meetings, he said, “Pretty much everything.”
In response to criticisms that the case would delay the distribution of opioid settlement money, Mr. Cauchon said, “I spend every day trying to prevent overdose deaths. This board is unqualified to spend this money wisely. It is nothing but a benefit to the public to delay until this board gets public involvement and learns the issue it is spending a half billion dollars on.”
HRO has another lawsuit against OneOhio in the Ohio Supreme Court, accusing the group of not adhering to the Public Records Act.
Judge: Ohio foundation overseeing $440M in opioid settlement must make public decisions
By Jordan Laird, The Columbus Dispatch
A Franklin County judge has ordered a nonprofit overseeing $440 million in state opioid settlement funds to follow Ohio Sunshine Laws governing public meetings and making decisions in the open.
In his ruling issued Thursday, Franklin County Common Pleas Judge Mark Serrott said the OneOhio Recovery Foundation’s argument that it is a private entity is disingenuous and the public should be informed on how the government intends to spend enormous amounts of money.
“This is especially true in the context of the thousands, if not more, of families tragically impacted by the death of loved ones from overdoses and the untold human wreckage caused by opioid addiction,” Serrott said.
The state formed the OneOhio Recovery Foundation last year to allocate more than half of the $808 million Ohio secured in 2021 from suing opioid distributors for their role in the opioid crisis. The foundation’s 29 board members — who are appointed by the governor, attorney general, legislative leaders and 19 regions across Ohio — are tasked with giving out grants and finding long-term solutions to the opioid epidemic.
The rest of the settlement money is going to local governments and the state.
Harm Reduction Ohio, a nonprofit that advocates for drug policies, accused OneOhio of not being transparent in its discussion about how the money would be spent and sued the foundation in August.
Whether OneOhio actually violated public meetings laws will be decided after a future court hearing where both sides can present evidence.
Harm Reduction says state-formed Foundation operates like a ‘private club’
Harm Reduction Ohio has said OneOhio has conducted some of its meetings without sufficient advance notice or via teleconference, which nobody other than board members could access.
The foundation has previously stated it is not subject to Ohio’s open meeting laws and has kept its subcommittees’ meetings private.
Connie Luck, a spokesperson for the OneOhio Recovery Foundation, told The Dispatch that as the court process moves forward, the foundation will continue to conduct its business in an open and transparent manner, “as it has done since its first board meeting.”
“We remain confident the OneOhio (memorandum of understanding) clearly establishes the OneOhio Recovery Foundation’s status as a private, nonprofit organization, and not a government agency,” Luck said in an email to The Dispatch. “We are eager to put this resource-draining issue behind us so the foundation can focus on its work helping to save lives in ways our state has never been able to do before.”
The memo detailing how settlement money will be distributed and establishing the foundation states “meetings shall be open, and documents shall be public to the same extent they would be if the Foundation was a public entity,” Serrott pointed out in his order.
Dennis Cauchon, president of Harm Reduction Ohio, said the foundation’s board “needs to realize it’s not a private club.”
“It can’t act in secret. It needs to start treating the impacted population with respect, as partners rather than a nuisance,” Cauchon said. “People died for this money. Their memories should be honored, and the people who love them should be involved in how this half billion dollars gets spent.”
As a mother whose son struggled 20 years with substance abuse at the hands of doctors and drug manufactureres, and ended up losing his life, I stand and applaud Judge Serrott and Mr. Cauchon for standing up for what is right and for the families so devastatingly impacted for a lifetime by this issue. Their own words below perfectly capture all.
Judge Serrott “This is especially true in the context of the thousands, if not more, of families tragically impacted by the death of loved ones from overdoses and the untold human wreckage caused by opioid addiction,” he said. “The public deserves transparency and that the Foundation conduct open meetings.”
Mr. Cauchon said, “I spend every day trying to prevent overdose deaths. This board is unqualified to spend this money wisely. It is nothing but a benefit to the public to delay until this board gets public involvement and learns the issue it is spending a half billion dollars on.”
God Bless those who are doing what is right for the families of our State.