The Eleventh District Court of Appeals was recently faced with the issue of whether Ohio’s Open Meetings Act requires the meeting minutes of a public body to be accurate enough to show the specific reasons a Board has entered into executive session.
In State of Ohio ex rel. Ames v. Brimfield Township Board of Trustees, Ohio App. 11th Dist., No. 2019-P-0017, 2019-Ohio-4926, Ames alleged that the board wrongfully entered into executive session for matters not contained in the exceptions listed in R.C. 121.22(G). The basis of Ames claim was that the Board’s meeting minutes failed to state the specific purpose for which they entered into executive session. The Board argued that they were only required to make a specific reference to the reason for entering into executive session in the motion and the vote held during the open meeting, but were not required to provide a description of the applicable exception in their meeting minutes.
The Open Meetings Act requires all public officials to take official action and conduct all deliberations in open meetings unless excepted by law. R.C. 121.22(A). These exceptions are listed in R.C. 121.22(G), which allows a Board to enter into executive session in order to consider any of the matters listed in R.C. 121.22(G)(1)-(8). In this instant case, the Board claimed they entered into executive session in accordance with R.C. 121.22(G)(1) in order to consider the appointment, employment, dismissal, discipline, demotion, promotion… of a public employee. Furthermore, if a board enters into executive session pursuant to R.C. 121.22(G)(1), the motion and vote to do so must state the purpose for doing so. In this case, a member of the Board testified that at each of the meetings referenced in the complaint, the Trustee making the motion to move into executive session referenced the relevant exception stated in R.C. 121.22(G)(1). Thus, the Board believed that they were in compliance with the Open Meetings Act.
However, not only does the motion and vote to enter into executive session need to state the purpose for doing so, Ohio law requires the Board’s meeting minutes to reflect the “general subject matter” of discussions in executive session. R.C. 121.22(C). Thus, the court in this case was required to determine whether the meeting minutes must reflect the specific reason a Board entered into executive session, or whether the action taken properly in the meeting was enough to prove legality. The court determined that the meeting minutes must reflect the specific reason for entering into executive session. In doing so, they concluded that when a Board enters executive session, not only must the motion and the vote to enter into executive session need to state the purpose for doing so, the Board’s minutes must specifically reference each of the purposes for which the executive session was held. Therefore, if the Board enters into executive session pursuant to one of the exceptions listed in R.C. 121.22(G), the minutes should reflect one or more of the eight purposes listed therein, but need not provide any further specificity.
This case serves as a great reminder for school boards of education, and school treasurers, to ensure that the reason(s) for entering executive session are explicitly stated upon the motion and vote to enter into executive session, and for such reasons to be included with the same specificity in the meeting minutes. The failure to include the permissible reasons for entering into executive session within meeting minutes, even if appropriately motioned and voted on in a meeting, could result in technical violations of the Open Meetings Act, which may result in unfavorable court decisions and awards of attorneys fees.