Ohio Supreme Court Rules Secret Ballot in Bratenahl Village Illegal

A community journalist, Pat Meade of Bratenahl Village sued and unanimously reversed a lower court ruling in the Ohio Supreme Court.

She sued in 2016 over how village council chose its president pro tempore, who fills in for the mayor when the mayor is unable to perform their duties.

Bratenahl Village council members broke state law in 2015 when they used a secret ballot to elect a council member to a leadership position, the Ohio Supreme Court unanimously ruled. “The act is not satisfied simply because the doors of a council meeting are open to the public,” Justice Pat DeWine wrote. “Rather, an open meeting requires that the public 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.”

Curt Hartman, a Cincinnati-area lawyer who represented Meade, said  it is surprising in this day and age that certain governmental officials still think that they can, and should hide governmental operations from the taxpayers,” he said. “Today’s decision will undoubtedly continue the progress of promoting and advancing governmental openness, transparency and accountability.”

Meade is a Bratenahl resident who works in marketing and design. In her free time, she runs MORE Bratenahl, a quarterly newspaper she is in the process of converting to a digital format She sued in 2016 after she said she was unable to convince the village that the secret ballots were illegal. “I had watched them vote by secret ballot multiple times, and when I saw that based on what I read in Ohio sunshine laws and the [state attorney general] opinion from 2011, it seemed to me that they shouldn’t be doing it,” she said in an interview. “I would raise the question and each time, I was told it was legal, and I was dismissed.”

The question remains how many other municipalities and townships have secret ballots like Bratenahl did? If a governmental entity cannot have a meeting to discuss public business behind closed doors, that the governmental entity must not use a “secret ballot” to take any votes including voting to replace members of council or any other office. The message for public bodies in Ohio by a series of decisions of the Ohio Supreme Court is that they mean business about openness in Ohio government.  They have ruled against public bodies trying to do end-arounds to evade Ohio’s openness requirement through deliberations by e-mails and a series of round-robin or revolving door meetings of fewer than a majority of the body. The message should now be unmistakable for elected and appointed bodies desiring to conduct their work in secrecy.

Meade is running for Mayor in November, a decision she said she made before she knew whether the Supreme Court would rule in her case, which she originally considered to be a remote chance.

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