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Secret OSU board meetings questioned

Briefing sessions may be violation of Sunshine Law

Saturday, July 10, 2004

Kathy Lynn Gray
THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH
Reprinted by Permission

Ohio State's Board of Trustees has been meeting in secret before monthly meetings without notifying the media or the public.

Yesterday, eight of 11 members met privately with President Karen Holbrook for more than an hour at the Longaberger Alumni House near campus before their board meeting.

The meetings might violate Ohio's Open Meetings Act, adopted to make sure public bodies operate in public.

With few exceptions, the act, known as the Sunshine Law, requires public officials to notify the public if they are holding prearranged gatherings with a majority of members to discuss or conduct business.

Chairman Tami Longaberger would not share any details of the private meeting, but said Holbrook briefed the board about university issues. Holbrook said those issues included opposition to expansion at OSU's Don Scott Field.

Virginia Trethewey, an attorney for the board, called it a "briefing session," not a meeting.

She said there were no discussions and that members asked questions and listened to administrators talk.

"My stance is a briefing session is permissible under the Sunshine Law," she said. "No decisions were entertained or made."

She said a similar briefing took place before the June meeting.

According to the Ohio attorney general's office, the Open Meetings Act requires "public bodies to take official action and to conduct deliberations upon official business in open meetings."

Public bodies can meet in executive or closed sessions for specific reasons that include personnel matters.

In its 2004 publication about the Sunshine Law, the attorney general's office notes that some courts have found that "a gathering of a public body is not a meeting" if the officials "act only as passive observers in a ministerial fact-gathering capacity or informational session. The simple presentation of information to a public body, without more, may not be discussion."

The office adds that a "discussion" would be "an exchange of words, comments or ideas."

Before Longaberger became chairman in May, The Dispatch had for several years attended some breakfast-discussion meetings held before regular board meetings. These meetings, too, had been considered closed by some previous chairmen until The Dispatch protested.

kgray@dispatch.com

This article is also available at the dispatch.com.

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