Tuesday, April 27, 1999

Open-meetings issue hot topic for Lebanon

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        LEBANON — While council members say executive sessions would help them better serve the city, some residents fear such meetings would give the board carte blancheto handle public matters in secrecy.

        Mayor James Mills and council members Mark Flick and Jack Hedges were the only members who would comment on the charter amendment that goes before voters May 4. They support the measure, which would enable the council to meet in executive, closed-door sessions under certain circumstances as allowed by state law.

        None of the other council members returned repeated calls.

        “I think there are some things that need to be discussed behind closed doors,” Mr. Mills said.

        Former councilwoman Mary-Ann Cole, who was ousted in a recall election nearly a year ago, agrees with the importance of executive sessions.

        Nevertheless, she plans to oppose the charter amendment.

        “I think executive session is a tool every council needs,” Mrs. Cole said. “But I don't think this council can be trusted with it.”

        Mr. Hedges said he could understand the concern about trust but hoped it “wasn't a pervasive feeling.”

        He sponsored the legislation because he said executive sessions can be necessary and beneficial to running a city.

        In past meetings, council members have said the lack of executive session costs the city — and taxpayers — money. Because meetings are pub lic, the city is forced to tip its hand on prospective land purchases, perhaps raising the asking price, they have said.

        Mr. Mills and Mr. Flick said the charter, while well-conceived nearly 40 years ago, couldn't foresee some of the effects of the city's explosive growth.

        When it was adopted in 1960, Lebanon was still a village with fewer than 5,000 people. In the last decade, the population has gone up 31 percent, to an estimated 13,700. Housing starts since 1990 are more than double the number built from 1970 to 1989.

        “The people who made the char ter did a good job, but it's outlived itself somewhat,” Mr. Mills said.

        Mrs. Cole said the charter needs revision, but until a full-scale review is completed and approved, council can't pick and choose which components of the charter to follow and which to ignore.

        Downtown business owner and resident Gerald Miller is urging friends and neighbors to oppose the charter amendment.

        “There might be things that are sensitive, but I believe the citizens of Lebanon are old and big enough to take anything. We don't need these secret meetings,” Mr. Miller said. “Anything that has to do with the public money should be open to the public.”

        Mr. Flick said he supports the public's right to know, but that some topics, especially personnel matters, should be private.

        “I just don't think we should publicly address some of the problems,” he said. “It's not fair to the individual.”

        In January, four of seven council members met in executive session to discuss awarding back pay to a former employee. Mr. Flick, Mr. Mills and Mr. Hedges did not attend the closed-door meeting. Mr. Flick said he believed the city's charter prohibited such action.

        Warren County Common Pleas Court Judge P. Daniel Fedders agreed. At The Cincinnati Enquirer's request, he issued a temporary re straining order banning council members from holding executive sessions for any reason.

        The Ohio Revised Code allows councils to meet privately to discuss personnel issues, pending litigation and land purchases. But the city's charter, which supersedes state law, says “all meetings of council shall be open to the public.”

        City officials and The Enquirer agreed to wait until after the election to decide how to proceed with the lawsuit. If voters turn down the charter amendment, the case will go to trial to seek a permanent injunction barring council from holding executive sessions.

        A hearing to discuss the matter is scheduled for May 5.


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