Thursday, January 16, 2003

UC presidential search panel told to open meetings

By Kristina Goetz
and Sharon Turco
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Despite a pledge to make the search for the University of Cincinnati's next president an open process, the group recommending a successor to Joseph Steger appears determined to do its work outside the public eye.

The 13-member Presidential Search Committee has had one formal public meeting since Dr. Steger announced Nov. 1 that he was leaving in June. But before that Dec. 19 session, Chairman Jeff Wyler had handed out two assignments to committee members: choosing a recruiting firm to find candidates from around the country and drafting a job description for the president's job.

Also at that meeting, each of the members was asked to sign a "code of ethics" that pledged they would respect the "absolute confidentiality" of those interested in the job. That's important, Mr. Wyler said, to ensure UC's ability to attract top-notch candidates and to not put finalists' current jobs in jeopardy.

Wednesday, the search process landed in a Hamilton County courtroom.

The committee had planned a private all-day session at the Queen City Club downtown to hear presentations from several recruiting companies interested in winning UC's business. The Cincinnati Enquirer objected, saying the closed-door meeting violated the Ohio Open Meetings Act, which requires that all meetings of any public body - which would include the UC search committee - be open to the public.

Common Pleas Judge Robert P. Ruehlman sided with the newspaper's argument. He granted a temporary restraining order, which effectively canceled Wednesday's meeting.

"What's the big secret, anyway?" the judge asked a UC lawyer.

The hearing underscored the potential conflict between the state's second-largest university's bid to attract prominent presidential candidates without violating Ohio law and the public's right to know not only a government body's decision on a matter, but also the ways and means by which that decision was reached.

Mr. Wyler, who owns several car dealerships in the Tristate, was critical of the newspaper's argument.

"The Enquirer's insistence on intruding into this process will disrupt it by foreclosing the interest of potential candidates," Mr. Wyler, also a UC board of trustees member, said in a prepared statement.

In an interview last week about the search, Mr. Wyler said, "If we say the local newspaper wants access to all the candidates, we're going to lose 90 percent of them ... We will conform to the law. Unfortunately, it can be interpreted."

The co-author of the guide to Ohio's open-records laws said the state's Supreme Court has been clear on public-records cases similar to the UC presidential search.

"The entire public employment process is an open book," said Mark Weaver, former Ohio deputy attorney general. "Any public office that attempts to close it is violating Ohio law."

The intent of Ohio's Open Meetings Act is for the public to be involved and informed in government's decision-making process, said John Murdock, the Enquirer's lawyer.

"You can call it deliberations. You can call it debate. But wherever the decisions are made, that is a meeting, and the public has a right to have access to that and be present as it occurs," Mr. Murdock said.

Judge Ruehlman urged lawyers for UC and the newspaper to reach an agreement about how meetings will be announced and information disseminated to the public. Another hearing is scheduled for Feb. 7.

"This is a public university that is important to the community," he said.

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