Olentangy Valley News

Proposed charter amendment

Powell voters asked to allow more private city meetings

By ThisWeek Community News  • 

A proposal to expand the rights of Powell City Council to discuss matters privately is backed by all but one member of council.

Councilwoman Sara Marie Brenner is the only member of council who voted against a proposed amendment to the Powell city charter that would give council new power to relegate official city business to private executive sessions.

"No one should want to prevent the public from knowing what's going on in the community," Brenner said. "I think more transparency is always better than less transparency."

That amendment is one of seven city voters will see on the May 7 primary ballot. If approved, it would make way for council to identify additional grounds on which discussions can remain confidential outside of those explicitly allowed under state law.

Mayor Richard Cline and other council members have said it would give council more flexibility to negotiate economic-incentive deals with companies interested in moving to Powell, among other potential uses.

"The primary benefit is that it would allow us to hold discussions with people who want to bring development into the city in executive sessions where we can have a frank dialogue about the financial impacts of those decisions," Cline said. "Very often, those applicants are unwilling to do that in a public session for fear that it could hurt their business by disclosing trade secrets or confidential information."

But rather than singling out economic-development talks, the proposed charter amendment states council could enter executive session to discuss any item if five out of seven council members agree it's necessary during a public meeting.

The ballot language reads: "All meetings of the Council shall be open to the public subject to the right of Council to meet, but not take action, in a non-public executive session held during a regular or special meeting as permitted by the laws of the State of Ohio or as Council may further provide by ordinance for matters declared in such ordinance to require confidentiality, which ordinance shall be adopted by the affirmative vote of not less than two-thirds of all members of Council."

That language prompted harsh criticism from Dennis Hetzel, executive director of the Ohio Newspaper Association, a state trade group that represents Ohio newspapers.

He said it violates the spirit, and potentially the letter, of Ohio's open-meeting law, which allows closed meetings only under specific circumstances.

"There can't be an open-meetings law anywhere in America in which the intent would be to allow the members of an elected body to meet in secret for any reason they choose," Hetzel said.

According to the 2009 Ohio Sunshine Laws, there are eight reasons the state allows governmental bodies to go into executive session: discussion of personnel matters; property purchases; litigation; bargaining matters; security; hospital secrets; veteran services; and other matters required to be kept confidential under federal or state statutes.

Because Powell's government operates under a charter, the Ohio Constitution allows officials to change some of the state's provisions in the Open Meetings Act.

It's unclear if the open-ended nature of the Powell proposal would withstand legal scrutiny, though Cline and Powell City Attorney Gene Hollins argue the measure is well within the city's rights.

At least one neighboring community adopted nearly identical charter language more than 16 years ago.

Dublin City Council has operated since 1996 under the rule without legal issue or any sign of abuse. In fact, the city hasn't acted upon the privilege to expand executive session rights at all.

Regardless, Hetzel said: "Even if this authority is rarely or ever used, it still opens the door to all kinds of mischief and simply is bad public policy."

Cline countered the proposal isn't just legal; it's sensible and retains transparency.

"It's appropriate to require council to adopt an ordinance that would be adopted in open session, transparent to all the voters, and would enable council to respond to changing circumstances much more quickly than changing the charter would," Cline said.

The other six amendments set to appear on the May 7 ballot would:

* Allow council to declare a seat vacant if a member is absent from meetings for two consecutive months, and affirm council's right to have a member removed from council chambers for the duration of a meeting for "disorderly conduct."

* Clarify the procedure for the filing and consideration of a referendum on a city ordinance.

* Align the city's conflict-of-interest policy for city officials with corresponding state laws.

* Extend term lengths for members of the city's Planning and Zoning Commission and Board of Zoning Appeals from three to four years.

* Streamline rules for seeking and awarding contracts for public improvements.

* Establish a review of the charter at least once every 10 years.

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