OneOhio violated open meetings law
“The public deserves transparency,” judge says
A court ruled today that the OneOhio opioid settlement board must follow Ohio open meetings law and stop acting in secret.
A Franklin County Common Pleas Court denied the foundation’s request to be declared exempt from the open meetings requirements in Ohio law and the opioid settlement agreement.
“The argument that the Foundation is a private entity not subject to the public meetings statute ignores the reality of its creation and funding. The private entity argument is an illusion without substance much like the ‘Emperor’s new clothes,’ ” wrote Franklin County Common Please Court Judge Mark Serrott in his 15-page decision.
He concluded: “The public deserves transparency and that the Foundation conduct open meetings. IT IS SO ORDERED.”
OneOhio’s Secrecy Claim
The OneOhio foundation was created by Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, Attorney General David Yost and more than 1,000 local Ohio governments to spend 55% of Ohio’s $1 billion opioid settlement. Both Ohio open meetings law and Section 12 of the opioid settlement agreement require that the foundation follow open meetings law and public records law.
However, the foundation claimed from the start that it had the right to act in secret, excluding the public from meetings and not disclosing how it spends money. (See other stories on contracts given to connected insiders.)
Harm Reduction Ohio President Dennis Cauchon objected to OneOhio’s secrecy from the start, beginning when the public was prohibited from attending the first OneOhio meeting held in May 2022 at the Ohio state highway patrol headquarters.
Harm Reduction Ohio also objected to OneOhio’s refusal to disclose decisions or documents, except those it wanted the public to see.
In August 2022, Harm Reduction Ohio filed two lawsuits against OneOhio: an open meetings suit in Franklin County Common Pleas Court, the public records suit was filed with the Ohio Supreme Court. (Ohio law provides different venues for open meetings and public records lawsuits.) The Ohio Supreme Court has received legal briefs from OneOhio and Harm Reduction Ohio. A decision or request for oral arguments is pending.
Open meetings decision
Franklin County Judge Mark Serrott held a hearing on the open meetings case in October 2022. He made his decision today.
The judge ruled that both Ohio’s open meetings law and the settlement agreement required OneOhio to follow open meetings law.
Ohio law requires open meetings
To determine whether OneOhio is bound by open meetings law, the judge applied a six-part test that weighed factors such as how OneOhio was created, whether the foundation makes decisions and the source of its funding.
“”Thus, almost all of the above factors considered by all Ohio courts in ambiguous ‘public body’ cases support this Court’s conclusion that the Foundation is a ‘public body’ subject to (Ohio Revised Code) 121.22.”
Settlement agreement requires open meetings
In addition to ruling that Ohio law requires open meetings, the judge ruled that Section 12 of the opioid settlement agreement — its Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) — required the same thing. (Shown above.)
He wrote: “The M.O.U. explicitly mandates that the Foundation conduct open meetings ‘to the same extent they would be if the Foundation was a public entity.’ The M.O.U. provision incorporates the provisions of R.C. 121.22 and is similar to the incorporation set forth in ACLU case…Therefore, the Court finds in addition to the Foundation meeting the criteria set force in R.C. 121.22 as a public body, by incorporating the language in the M.O.U.. it would be subject to the statute even if it did not meet the criteria set forth in the statute.”
The court decision rejects OneOhio of its claim that it can legally operate without regard to Ohio open meetings law. OneOhio admitted that it violated open meetings law; it’s defense was that it was not covered by the law. It lost that defense in today’s ruling.
OneOhio cannot appeal the decision because the judgment was on a motion, not the final resolution of the case. The next step is for Harm Reduction Ohio to seek to enforce Ohio open meetings law.
Ohio’s open meetings law has one remedy: actions taken during those meetings are invalid. OneOhio has put itself in a bad position: Rather than operating openly until it received a favorable decision that it didn’t have to follow open meetings law, it did the opposite: essentially conducting all business in secret and in violation of the law over the 10 months of its existence.
In its lawsuit, Harm Reduction Ohio asked for the standard remedy for open meeting violations: — all decisions made in meetings law are invalidated. Harm Reduction Ohio also asked for reimbursement of legal expenses to compel OneOhio to comply with the law.
Who wanted secrecy? Government officials
The foundation’s 29-member state board is appointed by Ohio’s governor, attorney general, state legislative leaders and local governments through regional boards. The board consists largely of elected officials, government staffers and recently retired elected officials. OneOhio’s executive director is an Ashtabula County Commissioner who previously served as board chair. Twenty-eight of 29 board members are White.
“Government officials wanted the opioid settlement to be a secret slush. That’s wrong, not to mention illegal,” said Harm Reduction Ohio President Dennis Cauchon. “Transparency laws exist for a reason — to prevent self-dealing and protect public scrutiny of governmental decisions.”
“It’s a meaningful coincidence that this decision came out on the same day that former House Speaker Larry Householder was convicted of secretly taking millions of dollars in bribes to do favors for connected people. OneOhio should be glad that it lost this decision and now has to operate openly. If the opioid settlement became dark money spent in secret, I’d suggest pre-scheduling the indictments.”
“It’s time for OneOhio to welcome the public, especially people impacted by opioids, into decision-making on settlement money. OneOhio has already wasted a small fortune of settlement money in its quest to be a secret organization. This waste of settlement dollars benefits only the government officials on the board, not people harmed by opioids.”
Harm Reduction Ohio emailed OneOhio Board Chair Larry Kidd and public relations person Connie Luck for comment on the decision. No response had been received as of publication of this article.