On April 1, 2022, the Ohio Court of Appeals for the First District, which covers Hamilton County, issued a ruling in the case of State ex rel. Mohr v. Colerain Twp., invalidating a land use plan created by a township subcommittee that operated in violation of the Open Meetings Act (OMA). The decision serves as a reminder to boards of education that committees created by the board must comply with the OMA even if they are not making formal “decisions” on behalf of the board itself.

The Colerain Township Board of Trustees created a subcommittee called the Comprehensive Land Use Plan Subcommittee to identify appropriate land use policies and create an appropriate updated land use plan for the township. The subcommittee met privately, did not take minutes of its meetings and did not provide notice of its meetings to the public. The proceedings were informal and no votes were taken, but the subcommittee did create recommendations that were eventually submitted to the board of trustees. The record also shows that the subcommittee members discussed issues by email.

The court of appeals upheld the trial court’s decision invalidating the land use plan created by the subcommittee. The court dispensed with the argument that the subcommittee was not a “public body” because it provided recommendations only to administrative staff and was not a decision-making body. The court noted that the act of creating recommendations itself requires decision-making, triggering the law’s requirement that the process be open to the public. The lack of formal “decision-making power” was not dispositive. The fact that the subcommittee did not take formal votes did not alter the fact that it was making decisions about recommendations that triggered the OMA. Lastly, the fact that the subcommittee did not “intentionally” circumvent the OMA’s requirements did not cure the violations.

The ruling reminds boards that they must take care that any committees or subcommittees they create to make recommendations comply with the OMA’s requirements. This applies even if the committee does not operate “formally” or take votes. Likewise, boards should not rely on the lack of a majority of board members on the committee to exempt committee work from the OMA, as this is not the determining factor. Failure to take these steps could result in the invalidation of the committee’s work in addition to other possible sanctions.

Additional information about the creation and use of committees by boards of education appears in the April 2022 edition of OSBA’s School Management News. If you have questions about committees or the OMA generally, please contact the legal division hotline at (855) OSBA-LAW.

Posted by John R. Price on 5/6/2022