Civil Rights & Constitutional Law
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January 17, 2017
Wednesday, August 14, 2019
August 14, 2019 – Today, the Supreme Court of Ohio held that secret ballots violate the Open Meetings Act. Public officials cannot hide their votes from colleagues or constituents.
In January 2015, Bratenahl Village’s council voted for its president pro tempore by secret ballot. The president pro tempore fills in when the mayor is unable to perform mayoral duties. Two councilmembers were nominated to serve in the role. One requested that council vote by secret ballot. Another inquired about the legality of secret ballot voting, but secret ballot proceeded anyway.
In January 2016, Pat Meade, a Bratenahl resident and operator of the community-news publication MORE Bratenahl, filed a complaint in Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court against the village and its councilmembers alleging a violation of Ohio’s Open Meetings Act, R.C. 121.22. The law requires public bodies to take official action and conduct all deliberations on official business in open meetings where the public can attend and observe such deliberations. The law also requires public bodies to give advance notice to the public, indicating where and when the meetings will occur and, for special meetings, state the specific topics to be discussed.
Meade argued that voting by secret ballots was inconsistent with the Act’s purpose. The trial court granted summary judgment for Bratenahl and the Eighth District Court of Appeals affirmed. Although the court noted that the act ensures “accountability of elected officials by prohibiting their secret deliberations on public issues,” it held that secret ballot voting was not in violation of the Open Meetings Act. State ex rel. MORE Bratenahl v. Village of Bratenahl, Eighth Dist. No. 105281, 2018-Ohio-497, ¶¶ 13, 20. The Eighth District noted that the ballots were handwritten in open session, included the name of the nominated individual, and maintained by Bratenahl as a public record. Id. at ¶ 20. The court found “no evidence that Bratenahl attempted to conceal information from the public.” Id.
But for the Supreme Court of Ohio, that was not enough. The Supreme Court looked at the meaning of “open” and the legislature’s intent when it passed the Open Meetings Act. The Court concluded when considering the Act’s text, structure, and legislative purpose, the broad meaning prevailed rather than the narrow construction the village advanced. Indeed, the Act provides that “a resolution, rule, or formal action of any kind is invalid unless adopted in an open meeting of the public body.” State ex rel. MORE Bratenahl v. Village of Bratenahl, 2019-Ohio-3233, ¶ 14. Consistent with that text, the Court held that for a vote to be valid, it must be conducted in the open. Id. The Court remanded the case to the trial court to issue an injunction and order the council to pay a civil forfeiture.
Under this precedent, open doors in a council meeting are not enough to satisfy the “openness” requirement. Id. at ¶ 19. The public must “have meaningful access to the deliberations that take place among members of the public body, and that includes being able to determine how participants vote.” Id. Public officials must maintain a meeting’s openness and “the consequence for failing to adopt a formal action in an open meeting—invalidation of that action—falls on the public body.” Id.
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