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Ohio township order to pay for private pre-meetings

LEBANON, Ohio – A judge who earlier found that a southwest Ohio township government violated open-meetings law with informal gatherings has ordered it to pay nearly $200,000 in attorney fees and costs.

The 2011 lawsuit said Clearcreek Township trustees regularly met in the township administrator’s office before public meetings from 2009 to 2011 to work out their positions on issues.

The Dayton Daily News ( ) reported that Warren County Common Pleas Judge James Flannery has ordered the township to pay the attorney fees on behalf of resident Jack Chrisman, who sued the trustees.

Emily Grannis, a lawyer with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said it’s a large award for that kind of litigation.

“It certainly is encouraging,” Grannis said. “It makes it worthwhile for lawyers to take this kind of work.”

Open-government advocates around the state had watched the case closely because of concerns that the township wasn’t alone in circumventing state law.

“Unfortunately, that’s a very common practice,” Grannis said.

Flannery said in March that there was no evidence that the township officials set out to deliberately violate the law, but that they did so by discussing such items as a lawn care contract and a zoning nuisance policy in the administrator’s office ahead of public meetings. He said such sessions raise the appearance that decisions are being made in a back room.

The newspaper reported that Flannery cut some $45,000 from the amount sought by attorneys Christopher Finney and Curt Hartman, who could appeal.

Officials said the attorney fees would be paid from township funds because insurance coverage has been exhausted.

“Our coverages are used up,” said Township Administrator Dennis Pickett. “The payment would be from public funds out of the general fund.”

Township Fiscal Officer Linda Oda said besides exhausting $50,000 in insurance coverage, the township paid more than $20,000 for its own legal costs.