The Barnesville Exempted Village School Board of Education was recently advised of possible Sunshine Law violations stemming from the use of executive sessions at board meetings. A letter addressed to Superintendent Randy Lucas dated September 4, 2009 from a lawyer for a firm representing the Barnesville Education Association addressed what it called, "concerns about the actions taken by Barnesville Exempted Village School District Board of Education its meetings."

The letter said the board's actions "violate provisions of the Sunshine Law, R.C. §121.22, specifically with the use of executive sessions."

The letter further states, "In the last three years, the Board, on average, has spent more than 70% of its time in executive session. Based upon a review of minutes and recordings of those meetings, it appears that the Board's actions not only violate R.C. §121.22, but they also discourage public participation.

Violations include, but are not limited to:

1. Not providing any reasons, or reasons that do not adequately specify the purpose for moving to executive session, as specified in R.C. §121.22(G). An example of this violation occurred at the August 22, 2007 Board meeting. The Board provided no reason for moving to executive session. In another instance, at the Board's April 8, 2008 meeting, the reason stated for going to executive session was simply "personnel."

2. When reasons are provided, the Board uses the same language each time, i.e., "for the purpose of appointment, employment, dismissal, discipline, promotion, or compensations of public employees and in preparing for negotiations with public employees, and matters required to be kept confidential by federal law, rules or state statutes."

3. After the Board returns from executive session, it moves into a series of resolutions that do not reflect the reasons it provided for the executive session, and often include matters that are not permitted to be discussed in executive sessions.

In regard to the first violation, the Board cannot move to executive session without stating one or more of the approved purposes included in R.C. §121.22 (G)(1). Furthermore, a motion to discuss "personnel" does not adequately meet the requirements in R.C. §121.22 (G), as it does not specify the specific purpose for entering into executive session. Weisbarth v. The Geauga Park District, 2007 WL 4376217 (Ohio App. 11th Dist.)."

"As to the other violations, the Board's July 2009 meeting is a perfect example. The meeting started at 7 p.m. and ended at 8:40 p.m. During the meeting, the Board remained in executive session from 7:06 p.m. until 8:23 p.m. Prior to going into executive session, the Board improperly used the boilerplate language of "appointment of employment, dismissal, discipline, promotion, or compensation of public employees and in preparing for negotiations with public employees, and matters required to be kept confidential by federal law, rules or state statutes" as the reasons for moving to executive session. After spending approximately 77% of its time in executive session, the Board returned to regular session and adopted a series of recommendations without any discussion or debate. Many of the recommendations were made on topics that were not appropriate for executive session."

The letter asserts that, "the Barnesville Board consistently uses boilerplate language for moving to executive session. By providing multiple reasons for going to executive session, the general public is not being provided sufficient justification for the executive session. Furthermore, after the conclusion of the executive session, the Board moves into a series of resolutions - without any debate or discussion - on topics that don't reflect the reasons that were provided for the executive session, and/or that include voting on matters that are not permitted to be discussed in executive sessions. These actions violate the Sunshine Law."

"In light of these serious concerns, the Association insists that the Board comply with its statutory responsibilities under the Sunshine Law. If the Board fails to do so, the Association will be forced to pursue appropriate legal recourse."

Ohio's Open Records and Open Meetings laws, collectively known as the "Sunshine Laws," give Ohioans access to government meetings and records.

The letter appeared on a Columbus Dispatch blog.

In a letter to dispatch reporter Randy Ludlow, Superintendent Lucas wrote: "The Board of Education strives to comply with Ohio's Open Meeting Act and will review the letter from the attorney for the BEA and examine its claims closely. The District had not received the letter prior to it appearing on your blog. However, as to the percentage of time that a board of education spends in executive session, the Act allows boards of education to enter executive session for the reasons sent forth in O.R.C. §121.22. It does not require a board of education to limit the amount of time it spends in executive session to discuss those issues. Nor does the law limit the percentage of time it spends in executive session in comparison to the time it spends in open session."

In his letter, Lucas thanked the BEA for bringing the issue to the district's attention and said the board will review their procedures to verify that they comply with the Act.

Lucas' only response was to refer to the letter, although he did say it would be up to the board to make any decisions regarding how the monthly board meetings are run. The board meets in regular session this Thursday at 7 p.m. in the middle school cafetorium.