Note: This page covers information specific to Ohio. For general information concerning access to government meetings see the Access to Government Meetings section of this guide.
The Ohio Open Meetings Act provides the public with a right of access to the meetings of a large number of government bodies at the state and local level in Ohio. The law entitles you to notice of these meetings and gives you the ability to inspect and copy meeting minutes. For more detailed information about Ohio's Open Meetings Act, please consult the Ohio Attorney General's excellent guide, the 2012 Sunshine Laws Manual. It has detailed yet understandable explanations of the most important aspects of the state's open meetings and open records laws. For additional information, see the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press's Open Government Guide: Ohio.
What Meetings are Covered?
What Government Bodies Are Covered?
The Ohio Open Meetings Act does not apply to all government bodies in Ohio. It only covers "public bodies," a term with a specific legal definition. The law defines "public body" broadly to include most government bodies (i.e., entities made up of more than one member) that make decisions on matters of public business. At the state government level, the term "public body" means "any board, commission, committee, council, or similar decision-making body of a state agency, institution, or authority." Ohio Rev. Code § 121.22(B)(1)(a) (scroll down to version effective as of 2-12-2008). At the local government level, a "public body" is "any legislative authority or board, commission, committee, council, agency, authority, or similar decision-making body of any county, township, municipal corporation, school district, or other political subdivision or local public institution." Ohio Rev. Code § 121.22(B)(1)(a). At both the state and local government level, the term "public body" also includes any committee of one of the above-described public bodies. See Ohio Rev. Code § 121.22(B)(1)(b).
Some examples of public bodies include the Ohio Elections Commission, the Ohio State Board of Education and its committees, boards of county commissioners, county boards of elections, city councils, city and town zoning boards, and local school boards. The Open Meetings Act does not apply to a single government official acting in his or her individual capacity. It also does not apply to the state legislature (which has its own rules requiring that sessions be open to the public), the judiciary, or federal government bodies. The Open Meetings Act identifies certain public bodies and types of gatherings that are exempt from the requirements of the Open Meetings Act:
- grand juries
- audit conferences
- Adult Parole Authority hearings conducted at a correctional institution for the sole purpose of interviewing inmates to determine parole or pardon;
- the Organized Crime Investigations Commission;
- the Child Fatality Review Board;
- State Medical Board meetings to determine whether to suspend a certificate without a prior hearing;
- Board of Nursing meetings to determine whether to suspend a license or certificate without a prior hearing;
- Board of Pharmacy meetings to determine whether to suspend a license without a prior hearing;
- State Chiropractic Board meetings to determine whether to suspend a license without a prior hearing;
- meetings of the Executive Committee of the Emergency Response Commission when determining whether to issue an enforcement order or request that a civil action, civil penalty action, or criminal action be brought.
The Ohio Attorney General's guide, the 2012 Sunshine Laws Manual, has a great deal of additional information about what government bodies are covered by the Open Meetings Act.
What is a Meeting?
In addition to determining what government bodies are covered by the Ohio Open Meetings Act, you'll need to figure out which of their gatherings or activities constitute an "meeting" for purposes of the law (and therefore must be open to the public). Under Ohio law, a gathering is a "meeting" if it has three characteristics. First, it must be a prearranged gathering. Second, a majority of the members of the public body must attend. For example, if a school board has nine members, then five members would be required for a "meeting" to take place. If the school board created a finance committee with five members, then three members of the finance committee would be required for a "meeting" of the finance committee to take place. Third, the purpose of the meeting must be to conduct, transact, deliberate, or discuss public business. Thus, the Open Meetings Act would not apply to a social or ceremonial gathering. Nor would it cover a conference or similar event that a majority of members happened to attend, so long as they did not use the event as an excuse to deliberate or discuss public business without an open meeting.
Public bodies may not hold meetings through teleconferencing or videoconferencing. A member must be physically present to deliberate or vote on any matter of public business. Furthermore, the Attorney General indicates that members of a public body may not circumvent the open-meetings requirements by holding a conference call and claiming that there is no "meeting" because a majority of members is not present. One Ohio court has indicated that email communications are not covered by the Open Meetings Act. See Haverkos v. Nw. Local School Dist. Bd. Of Educ., 2005 Ohio App. LEXIS 3237, at *7-8. (Ohio Ct. App. July 8, 2005).
What Are Your Rights?
The Ohio Open Meetings Act gives "any person" the right to attend the meetings of public bodies, with exceptions for closed sessions discussed below. Ohio law does not limit access to meetings to a specific category of people or a profession, such as "the traditional press." Anyone may attend. The right to attend does not include a right to participate or comment. Moreover, if you act in a disruptive fashion, a public body may have you removed from a meeting. Sometimes, a public body will voluntarily provide time for public comment.
The right to attend meetings is not necessarily meaningful without proper notice of those meetings. To address this issue, Ohio law requires public bodies to provide advance notice of their meetings to the public. Unlike most states, however, Ohio does not impose specific requirements for how far in advance notice must be given. Instead, the law provides that each public body will establish by rule "a reasonable method whereby any person may determine the time and place of all regularly scheduled meetings and the time, place, and purpose of all special meetings." Ohio Rev. Code § 121.11(F).
Public bodies must establish a notification rule for "regular meetings," which are meetings held at regularly scheduled intervals. A public body must give advance notice that lets the public know the time and place of these meetings. Whatever method a public body chooses, it must give notice to members of the news media and the public who have requested notification. A public body can satisfy this requirement, for example, by mailing an agenda to subscribers to a mailing list or mailing notices in self-addressed stamped envelopes provided by those requesting notification. If you haven't requested notice for the meetings of a public body, you should check its website for a posted schedule because many public bodies publish notice on their websites in addition to providing it to those who have specifically requested it.
A public body may also hold "special meetings," which are meetings not listed on the regular schedule. A public body must give notice of a special meeting at least twenty-four hours in advance of the meeting, and the notice must include the time, place, and a description of the purpose of the meeting. As with regular meetings, a public body must provide notice to members of the news media and the public who have requested notification, and may post notice in other locations, including the Internet.
In an emergency situation, a public body may call an "emergency meeting." A public body must give notice of an emergency meeting immediately after calling the meeting, and the notice must include the time, place, and a description of the purpose of the meeting. Again, a public body must deliver notice to members of the news media and the public who have requested notification, and may post notice in other locations, including the Internet.
Minutes and Recordings
Public bodies must keep full and accurate minutes of all meetings, including closed sessions. Generally, the minutes should provide sufficient information to permit the public to understand and appreciate the rationale behind the public body’s decisions. For closed sessions, the minutes need only give a general sense of the subject matter discussed. Public bodies must make all minutes available to the public for inspection and copying at a reasonable fee.
For information on your ability to use recording devices at public meetings, see Ohio Recording Law.
An Exception: Closed Meetings or Sessions
The general rule is that all meetings of public bodies must be open to the public. If a public body wants to hold a closed or "executive" session, it must identify a specific statutory exemption. Under the Ohio Open Meetings Act, a public body may hold a closed session when it is dealing with one of seven subject-area exemptions found in Ohio Rev. Code § 121.22(G). The seven exemptions are for meetings dealing with the following topics:
- the appointment, employment, dismissal, discipline, promotion, demotion, or compensation of a public employee or official, or the investigation of charges or complaints against a public employee, official, licensee, or regulated individual, unless the public employee, official, licensee, or regulated individual requests a public hearing (this exemption does not apply to the discipline of an elected official for conduct related to the performance of his or her duties);
- the purchase or sale of real estate for public purposes;
- pending or imminent litigation;
- negotiations or bargaining sessions with public employees concerning their compensation or other terms and conditions of their employment;
- matters required to be kept confidential by federal law or regulations or state statutes;
- details relative to the security arrangements and emergency response protocols for a public body or a public office;
- matters involving trade secrets (but only in connection with local hospitals).
The exemptions make it permissible for a public body to close a portion of a meeting; they do not require it to do so. To close a session, a public body must identify the exemption justifying closure on the record during an open meeting, and a majority of members present must vote to hold a closed session. No formal action may be taken during a closed session.
A handful of public bodies may close their meetings to the public when dealing with additional topics, listed in Ohio Rev. Code § 121.22(E). To do so, however, the members must unanimously vote to close the meeting. See page 14 of the Attorney General's guide for details.
What Are Your Remedies If You Are Denied Access?
If you believe that a public body has violated your rights, you can sue in state court. Under Ohio law, any person may file a lawsuit for violation of the Open Meetings Act in the court of common pleas for the county where the meeting in question took place. If you succeed in a lawsuit, you can obtain a court order requiring that a meeting or meetings be made open to the public in the future, that a public body satisfy its notice obligations, or that a public body provide access to minutes improperly withheld. In addition, if you go to court and win, the court must force the public body to pay you a $500 civil penalty, and it may order the public body to pay your attorneys' fees. However, if you go to court and lose, a court might order you to pay the winning public body's attorneys' fees, if it determines that your legal claim was frivolous. This would not happen unless your legal claim were utterly and obviously without any merit. If you want to file a lawsuit for violation of the Open Meetings Act, you must file your lawsuit within two years of the violation in question.
In the event that you are denied access to a meeting or class of meetings, you probably want to pursue an informal resolution before filing a lawsuit, which ordinarily is a costly and slow solution. You should contact the public body in question and inform it that you believe your rights have been violated and that you are willing to bring a legal action. You should submit your complaint in writing whenever possible. If the public body continues to deny your request for access, you should consider filing a lawsuit. There may be public interest organizations that would be willing to take on your case for free or for a reduced rate. Please see the Finding Legal Help section for details on finding legal representation.