COLUMBUS- The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio sent a formal letter to Columbus City Council President Michael Mentel and Mayor Michael Coleman urging them to abandon plans to amend the city charter to allow for closed door meetings. In July, city council members approved language for the November 2 ballot, and if passed by voters, will mean the city may conduct some business privately. Currently, the Columbus city charter has a broad requirement that all meetings be conducted in open.
ACLU of Ohio Legal Director James L. Hardiman said, “Columbus’ current charter language is commendable and should be a model for all government entities who wish to be transparent and accountable to the public. Changes to the charter will only lead to a loss of access for residents who wish to be informed about the council’s work.”
In its letter, the ACLU also took issue with the language of the ballot initiative. The amendment simply states that the Columbus City Council will operate in compliance with Ohio’s Sunshine Laws, but does not indicate to voters that this change will allow closed door sessions.
The Sunshine Laws refer to state law that regulates accessibility of public records and open meetings for all government entities.
“While state law provides protections against corruption and secrecy, it only outlines the bare minimum that government must do,” Hardiman added. “The current Columbus city charter goes above and beyond to ensure that residents have full access to information, so they may be effective watchdogs. Limiting the charter is an invitation for officials to abuse closed door sessions and exclude the public from decision-making.”
In July, Mayor Coleman endorsed the ballot initiative, but expressed concerns that closed door sessions could be abused in the future.
“Broad access to information ensures that residents are more engaged in civic life, and helps guard against officials’ wrongdoing. Columbus officials should be proud that their current charter offers greater access to residents. Rather than looking for ways to exclude the public, officials should be using the tools provided in their current charter to better serve them,” concluded Hardiman.