Ohio Fire Company Sued For Open Meetings Violation

A volunteer fire company in Ohio that settled a public records lawsuit with four concerned citizens earlier this year, is being sued again by three of those citizens who now claim the fire company must also comply with the state’s open meetings law.

Earl Miller, Mark Greer, and Jedd Sprunger are suing the Kidron Volunteer Fire Department. The trio claims the fire department is a public body under the open meetings law despite its status as a private sector nonprofit. The suit is pending in Wayne County Court of Common Pleas. If successful, the fire company’s meetings will have to be open to the public with advanced notice of the agenda posted in accordance with state law.

Earlier this year Miller, Greer, and Sprunger along with Jonathan Hofstetter settled a public records lawsuit with the fire company. The men had previously filed public records requests with the fire company that were denied. The settlement called for the fire company to pay the men $3,000 and produce the requested information.

At the center of both lawsuits is the definition of those entities who are subject to the public records and open meetings law. States usually have different requirements under each law. As a result it is not unusual to see volunteer fire companies treated as public entities for public records purposes but treated as private sector entities for open meetings law purposes.

A word of caution: every state has its own requirements for entities subject to open government laws, and the definitions vary from state to state particularly when it comes to volunteer fire companies.

With regard to the open meetings law in Ohio, Ohio Revised Code Section 121.22 defines a public body as follows:

(B) (1) “Public body” means any of the following:

  1. Any board, commission, committee, council, or similar decision-making body of a state agency, institution, or authority, and any legislative authority or board, commission, committee, council, agency, authority, or similar decision-making body of any county, township, municipal corporation, school district, or other political subdivision or local public institution;
  2. Any committee or subcommittee of a body described in division (B)(1)(a) of this section;
  3. A court of jurisdiction of a sanitary district organized wholly for the purpose of providing a water supply for domestic, municipal, and public use when meeting for the purpose of the appointment, removal, or reappointment of a member of the board of directors of such a district pursuant to section 6115.10 of the Revised Code, if applicable, or for any other matter related to such a district other than litigation involving the district. As used in division (B)(1)(c) of this section, “court of jurisdiction” has the same meaning as “court” in section 6115.01 of the Revised Code.

In regards to the public records law, Ohio law defines public record and then has a special section governing nonprofits such as fire companies:

149.43 Availability of public records for inspection and copying.

(A) As used in this section:

(1) “Public record” means records kept by any public office, including, but not limited to, state, county, city, village, township, and school district units, and records pertaining to the delivery of educational services by an alternative school in this state kept by the nonprofit or for-profit entity operating the alternative school pursuant to section 3313.533 of the Revised Code.

Ohio Revised Code 149.431 Records of governmental or nonprofit organizations receiving governmental funds.

(A) Except as provided in sections 9.833 , 2744.081, and 3345.203 of the Revised Code, any governmental entity or agency and any nonprofit corporation or association, except a corporation organized pursuant to Chapter 1719. of the Revised Code prior to January 1, 1980 or organized pursuant to Chapter 3941. of the Revised Code, that enters into a contract or other agreement with the federal government, a unit of state government, or a political subdivision or taxing unit of this state for the provision of services shall keep accurate and complete financial records of any moneys expended in relation to the performance of the services pursuant to such contract or agreement according to generally accepted accounting principles. Such contract or agreement and such financial records shall be deemed to be public records as defined in division (A) (1) of section 149.43 of the Revised Code and are subject to the requirements of division (B) of that section, except that: …

(3) Any nonprofit corporation or association that receives both public and private funds in fulfillment of any such contract or other agreement is not required to keep as public records the financial records of any private funds expended in relation to the performance of services pursuant to the contract or agreement.

On the face of the law, it would appear that Ohio is one of those states where the reach of the public records law is broader than the reach of the open meetings law. Stay tuned for how the courts interpret the open meeting statute.

Here is more on the story.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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