White v. Clinton Cty. Bd. of Commrs.

Decision Date21 August 1996
Docket NumberNo. 95-953,95-953
Citation76 Ohio St.3d 416,667 N.E.2d 1223
Parties, 24 Media L. Rep. 2460 WHITE, Appellant, v. CLINTON COUNTY BOARD OF COMMISSIONERS et al., Appellees.
CourtOhio Supreme Court

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

1. R.C. 121.22, 149.43 and 305.10, when read together, impose a duty on all boards of county commissioners to maintain a full and accurate record of their proceedings.

2. For public records maintained under R.C. 121.22 and 305.10, full and accurate minutes must contain sufficient facts and information to permit the public to understand and appreciate the rationale behind the relevant public body's decision.

APPEAL from the Court of Appeals for Clinton County, No. CA94-08-20.

On March 31, 1993, the Clinton County Board of Commissioners ("the Board") informed the county building and electrical inspector, Michael Richardson, that he could no longer perform joint inspections with agencies outside his department without the Board's prior written approval, and that he would be fired if he violated this directive. The Board also decided to bar building and electrical inspections unless a fire inspector and two township trustees requested the inspection.

Concerned that these new policies would impact health department procedures and standards, Lizbeth White, the Director of the Clinton County Health Department's Environmental Division, tried to obtain the specifics of the new policies. White asked the Board to provide her with minutes of the Board's discussions and adoption of the new policies. White also requested copies of Richardson's personnel files. The Board provided White with the minutes of the meeting at which the new policies were adopted, but the minutes did not mention the new policies and were missing a page. In addition, the Board did not give Richardson's personnel records to White. The Board sought the county prosecutor's opinion of the legality of the release of those records.

In a letter dated April 25, 1993, White informed the clerk of the Board that a page was missing from the minutes, and that the minutes she had received did not mention the new policies. On that date, White also asked the Board to provide her with advance notice of future Board meetings. The Board did not respond to these letters. On April 29, White repeated her request. On May 5, the county prosecutor advised the Board that it had to provide White with Richardson's personnel records, and issued a written opinion to the same effect on May 10. Also on May 5, the Board asked each member of the Clinton County Board of Health for any personnel records on White and her supervisor, Health Commissioner Bob Derge. In addition, the commissioners raised the price of photocopied public records from $.25 to $1 per page. White withdrew her requests for the Board's minutes on May 19.

White revived her request for records on June 17, 1993, and the Board agreed to provide her with access to its records that same day. In reviewing the Board's journal, White found no mention of the policies which precipitated her records requests.

On June 29, 1993, White filed a four-count complaint against the Board and its clerk, Brenda K. Woods, in the Clinton County Court of Common Pleas. 1 On the day of trial, White withdrew all counts but Count II from the complaint. Count II alleged that "[t]he Board fail[ed] to promptly and accurately record its policies, decisions, procedures and essential transactions [in violation of] R.C. Sections 121.22 and 149.43." The complaint sought a writ of mandamus compelling the Board "to prepare complete and accurate minutes of all Board policies, decisions, procedures and essential transactions."

At the outset of trial, White conceded that the true question before the court was the interpretation of R.C. 305.10. Both County Commissioner David Stewart and Brenda Woods testified at trial, and their testimony confirmed that, although the Board has a tape-recording system and Woods took notes at the Board's meetings, the minutes did not memorialize any discussions that took place. Rather, the minutes simply reflected the Board's final roll call votes. The trial court entered judgment for White on August 2, 1994, stating that "Section 305.10 O.R.C., if read in conjunction with Section 121.22 O.R.C. (The Sunshine Statute) and Section 149.43 O.R.C. (Ohio Public Records Act), clearly indicates that the intention of the legislature is to require the Board of County Commissioners to maintain a full record of its public meetings * * *." Consequently, the court ruled that "[t]he record must reflect the decision making process leading up to the vote including debate and/or discussion of the subject matter," and ordered the Board and Woods to "fully comply" with R.C. 305.10. The court also ordered the Board to reimburse White for her legal expenses.

On appeal, the Board argued that R.C. 121.22, 149.43 and 305.10 did not adequately state a clear legal right entitling White to mandamus relief. The court of appeals determined that, in its opinion, neither R.C. 121.22 nor 149.43 was implicated in White's action because the Board had complied with those statutes. Turning to R.C. 305.10, the court of appeals concluded that the statute did not create a clear legal duty on the part of county boards to maintain detailed minutes of their proceedings. Consequently, the court of appeals reversed the trial court's grant of a writ of mandamus. The court also ruled that the trial court's grant of attorney fees was erroneous.

The cause is now before this court pursuant to the allowance of a discretionary appeal.

Baker & Hostetler, David L. Marburger, Hilary W. Rule, Cleveland, and Elizabeth McNellie, Columbus, for appellant.

Isaac, Brant, Ledman & Teetor, Mark Landes and Terri B. Gregori, Columbus, and William E. Peele, Clinton County Prosecuting Attorney, for appellees.

Paul Moke, Wilmington, urging reversal for amicus curiae, American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio.

Stephen W. Gard, Cleveland, urging reversal for amicus curiae, Investigative Reporters and Editors.

Susan M. Gilles, urging reversal for amicus curiae, League of Women Voters of Ohio.

STRATTON, Justice.

This case involves the interpretation of R.C. 305.10, and its interplay with R.C. 121.22 (the Sunshine Law) and 149.43 (Ohio Public Records Act). White argues that these statutes impose a duty on boards of county commissioners to prepare minutes which reflect the substance of their meetings and provide some indication of the nature and direction of their discussions. A different reading, the appellant contends, would render R.C. 121.22 and 305.10 meaningless. The appellees, on the other hand, claim R.C. 305.10 does not require that minutes contain the type of specific information that White seeks, and that R.C. 121.22 is satisfied when any record is kept, regardless of how sparse the information is. We agree with the appellant and conclude that these statutes, when read together, impose a duty on boards of county commissioners to maintain a full and accurate record of their proceedings. Because we find that R.C. 121.22, 149.43, and 305.10 require the minutes of boards of county commissioners meetings to include more than a record of mere roll call votes, we reverse the court of appeals and reinstate the trial court's grant of mandamus relief.

One of the strengths of American government is the right of the public to know and understand the actions of their elected representatives. This includes not merely the right to know a government body's final decision on a matter, but the ways and means by which those decisions were reached. There is great historical significance to this basic foundation of popular government, and our founding fathers keenly understood this principle.

James Madison clearly laid out this strength of our government when he said that:

"A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps, both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives." The Complete Madison, His Basic Writings (1988) 337 (Letter to W.T. Barry, August 4, 1822).

Thomas Jefferson further expounded on this principle:

"The way to prevent [errors of] the people, is to go give them full information of their affairs throu' the channel of the public papers, and to contrive that those papers should penetrate the whole mass of the people. The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right * * *." 11 The Papers of Thomas Jefferson (1955) 49 (Letter to Col. Edward Carrington, January 16, 1787).

Ohio's own history is replete with rich examples of detailed records dating back to the 1800s. Amicus League of Women Voters of Ohio cites many rich examples of the long and illustrious record-keeping of our forebears. In fact, when the Ohio legislature created the first boards of county commissioners, it included in that creation a requirement that accurate records be kept by the county commissioners. See 2 Ohio Laws 150. In 1804, in "An act establishing boards of commissioners," the Ohio legislature required:

"Sec. 9. * * * That the commissioners shall have a just and accurate record kept of all their corporate proceedings, and for that purpose they are hereby empowered to appoint a clerk * * *." Id. at 153. That mandate continues through today in R.C. 305.10, requiring that the clerk "keep a full record of the proceedings of the board."

The question arises as to what is meant by a "full record." To understand what is meant by a "full record," one must look at the purpose and meaning behind keeping records. As several of the amici briefs point out, keeping an accurate record serves many useful functions. First of all, such records provide rich detail as to the history and culture of our country,...

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