Harm Reduction Ohio (HRO) and the OneOhio Recovery Foundation reached a settlement Friday, September 8, 2023, in an open meetings case.
OneOhio is a government-created non-profit that will control 55% — $1.1 billion — of Ohio’s $2 billion opioid settlement. The other 45% of Ohio settlement funds — $900 million — will be controlled directly by state and local governments.
In August 2022, HRO sued the OneOhio foundation in Franklin County Court of Common Pleas for holding meetings in violation of the Ohio’s Open Meetings Act. A hearing in the case was scheduled for Friday, September 8. The case was settled before the hearing began. Settlement terms are confidential.
In a separate but related case filed by HRO, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled May 11 that OneOhio was covered by Ohio’s public records law and must make records available to the public. However, the Ohio legislature included language in the state budget, signed by Gov. Mike DeWine on July 4, to exempt OneOhio from open meetings law, public records law, collective bargaining law and other legal requirements.
HRO plans to file suit challenging the validity of the budget bill amendment. HRO believes the amendment violates Ohio constitution’s so-called “one subject rule,” which states, “No bill shall contain more than one subject, which shall be clearly expressed in its title.”
OneOhio will become exempt from Ohio transparency laws starting in early October, 90 days after the governor signed the budget bill. If HRO prevails in a “one subject rule” challenge, OneOhio would again be covered by Ohio’s open meetings and public records laws. If the suit is unsuccessful, OneOhio would be exempt from transparency laws and determine for itself what meetings the public may attend and what records are released.
The lawsuits apply to the OneOhio foundation and the $1.1 billion it will receive through 2039. The lawsuits do not involve the 45% of opioid settlement money that goes directly to the state and 700 counties, cities and townships. The $900 million in settlement money going to state and local governments remain subject to Ohio transparency laws.
OneOhio has not distributed opioid settlement money yet. It expects to start distributions early next year. State and local governments have started spending their 45% share of opioid settlement funds.
Gongwer, a news service that covers policy and politics in Ohio, filed the following report:
Terms Undisclosed In Opioid Groups’ Open Meetings Settlement
After more than a year, a lawsuit over whether the foundation responsible for distributing millions in opioid settlement funds is a public body subject to sunshine laws was settled Friday morning.
However, both the plaintiff Harm Reduction Ohio, a naloxone distribution group, and the OneOhio Recovery Foundation declined to comment on the substance of the agreement.
“We are endeavoring to get the terms finalized,” John Greiner, attorney for HRO, said in an interview. “We hope that within the next seven to 10 days that that agreement should be finalized.”
The parties appeared before Judge Mark Serrott in the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas Friday morning for a hearing on the open meetings case following unsuccessful attempts at mediation held throughout the summer.
HRO president Dennis Cauchon previously stated that the foundation had little incentive to talk, given a provision in the state budget (HB 33 ) exempting OneOhio from open meetings and public records laws, contrary to rulings from Serrott as well as the Ohio Supreme Court. (See Gongwer Ohio Report, July 6, 2023)
The litigation escalated last month when HRO filed a motion to hold OneOhio in contempt for allegedly ignoring court-ordered compliance with open meetings laws when it was narrowing its list of executive director candidates to submit to Gov. Mike DeWine for final selection. (See Gongwer Ohio Report, August 10, 2023)
The foundation acknowledged that it did not publicly notice meetings to interview candidates, nor did it keep minutes, but argued that doing so was not required.
Cauchon previously stated that were HRO to win the case, any action made by the foundation would be invalidated and would have to be redone, including choosing an executive director and establishing rules to distribute opioid settlement funds.
Early in the Friday hearing, the parties submitted their exhibits to the judge, and discussed a $250 per hour attorney fee for Greiner.
Soon after, Greiner informed the judge that there was a possibility of a settlement.
Greiner and the judge had a private meeting for around two hours. Greiner then returned, though Serrott did not, and left the courtroom without further discussion.
Both parties confirmed that a settlement had been reached but declined to answer subsequent questions.
Cauchon said he still plans to file a separate lawsuit challenging a provision in the state budget that exempts the foundation from open meeting laws.