On January 16, 2024, the Eleventh District Court of Appeals decided the appeal of a frequent litigant and once again weighed in on the Ohio Open Meetings Act. In State of Ohio ex rel. Ames v. Portage Cty. Bd. of Commrs., 2024-Ohio-146, the court affirmed the granting of summary judgment in favor of the Portage County Board of Commissioners (“Board”) and dismissed the case. In the case, Ames alleged that the Board committed numerous violations of R.C. 121.22, the Ohio Open Meetings Act (“OMA”).

Among other things, the court made it clear that not every conversation constitutes a meeting subject to the OMA. In his Complaint, Ames alleged that a majority of the Board, two members, discussed the employment of the county’s director of budget and finance prior to the meeting. The two commissioners admitted to having an impromptu, brief discussion prior to the meeting.

The court highlighted that the OMA defined “meeting” as “any prearranged discussion of the public business of the public body by a majority of its members.” R.C. 121.22(B)(2). In affirming the granting of the motion for summary judgment, the court stressed that the meeting was not “prearranged.” The court held that the OMA does not prohibit impromptu discussions between a majority of board members.

Additionally, the court provided guidance on permitted procedures for executive session. Ames alleged that the Board violated the OMA by deciding to discharge the director of budget and finance during executive session. To support his allegation, Ames relied upon a commissioner’s statement, immediately after executive session, that the Board was dismissing the director. Ames concluded that the statement showed that the Board reached an impermissible collective decision during executive session.

Rejecting this contention and affirming the granting of the motion for summary judgment, the court of appeals noted that the OMA does not preclude the Board from reaching an informal consensus during executive session. So long as formal action is taken in an open meeting of the public body, no violation of the OMA occurs.

The case underscores two points. First, caution must be exercised to comply with the OMA. Activist litigants may put your processes to the test. Secondly, if caution is exercised and the procedures are followed, public entities can successfully defend against such claims.