For more than two years now, Columbus officials have been fighting to overturn two rulings involving cases where the mayor and city council were found to have violated the state’s open meeting laws by conducting the public’s business privately.
The Dispatch, which filed both of the ethics complaints that lead to those rulings, has followed the progress of each appeal. One currently is awaiting a hearing before the state supreme court after the city was found guilty of the violation in chancery court. The other is in the appeals process provided by the state ethics commission. In that case, the ethics commissioned levied a $500 fine against the mayor. There was no fine in the first case.
As we have reported the progress of each of these cases, we have noted the city’s position is contrary to its responsibility to its bosses, the taxpaying public. Like it or not, elected bodies are required to deliberate and decide all city business in public meetings.
It should not be a difficult concept to grasp, nor should complying with these laws inhibit officials from doing business on the people’s behalf.
The prudent, mature response would have been for the city to accept these rulings and “go and sin no more.”
Yet, the council and mayor persist in this needless fight. And here’s the kicker: They are using your tax dollars to do it.
To date, the city has spent more than $16,000 in fighting the two rulings, with the potential of spending more. Those costs, obtained by The Dispatch through an open records request, shows the city has paid the law firm of Mitchell, McNutt and Sams – the firm which employs city attorney Jeff Turnage – $12,274.50 to defend the first case and $3,872 to fight the latter case.
All that to avoid the mayor having to pay a $500 fine.
The city’s position is that if these rulings are allowed to stand, it would prevent officials from having informal conversations about pending city business.
Those fears exist exclusively in the fervent imagination of the city officials, however. Time and time again the ethics commission and the courts have gone to great lengths to make the distinction. A casual conversation among officials is nowhere prohibited by the law. Advocating for a particular position, trying to collect votes to support that position and reaching a decision on that matter outside of a public meeting is quite another. Such conduct violates the spirit and the letter of the law.
That does not seem to deter our leaders from continuing their fight against laws that ensure the public has a say in how their tax dollars are spent. They have spent more than $16,000 of that taxpayer money to do it and appear to have no reservations about spending even more. Damn the costs, is the prevailing sentiment.
In Yiddish, there is a word to describe that. It’s called chutzpah.
You could also refer to it as arrogance, gall, temerity or obstinance.
Whatever the choice of words, it is clear that the council’s costly efforts to fight these rulings are not in the best interests of the taxpaying citizens of Columbus.
That should be their priority.
Clearly, it is not.
The Dispatch Editorial Board is made up of publisher Peter Imes, columnist Slim Smith, managing editor Zack Plair and senior newsroom staff.