Closed Meetings Face Criticism

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Elected officials usually conduct their meetings in public, however the law says sometimes they can hold meetings in private. But Columbus City Council members say city ordinances prevent them from holding such executive sessions. They are looking at ways to hold some meetings in private.

Ohio law says elected officials have to meet in the open. There are some circumstances, though, when a public body can retire behind closed doors say to discuss sensitive legal matters, union negotiations and personnel issues.

Columbus City Council says the city’s charter, which guides city government, is vague on the issue. Members say it does not outline when a meeting can go private. So council this week appointed a review committee to consider some new rules for closed meetings.

Council member Hearcel Craig said he’s in favor of considering changes to rules surrounding executive sessions.

“It’s not one, certainly one would go into lightly. But, again, I think council’s position has consistently been to be, to be transparent and to ensure that the public ahs the broadest access to information,” Craig said.

City council member’s spokesperson John Ivanic said a closed meeting would be beneficial during, for example, a legal settlement. Ivanic said the city attorney is not allowed to collectively meet with council members. And he said council cannot deliberate the settlement until it comes to the floor.

But the move already faces opposition. Critics say it’s an attempt to keep interviews of potential city council appointees behind closed doors. And it could be an issue soon. City council could lose long-time member Charleta Tavares if she wins a state Senate race in November, and the all democratic council would appoint a replacement. All council members, at least since 2001, attained their seat through appointment. They all were later elected.

Councilman Craig says other municipalities around the state have executive sessions. Craig would not say if the possible changes were directly related council replacement vetting.

“My understanding is to get the broadest possible discernment from the advisory committee and others regarding this matter so that we may be able to, certainly from the public’s perspective, is getting the best possible person to serve this community. Ah, to, we’re all held accountable and responsible for the work that we do for our citizens, and that’s my expectation is to get the very best person that will serve the community,” Craig said.

City council cannot change the rules by itself. It must win over voters. Marsha Newberry, from Clintonville, is skeptical. She questions city council executive sessions, especially when it involves potential council members.

“I think the public should be more aware of who they’re going to appoint into office, instead of them doing the selection in privately and then giving us a selected people to vote from,” Newberry said.

Council member Craig said even people hoping to become city council members have things they’d like to keep private, like family issues.