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State ex rel. Ames v. Portage County Board of Commissioners

Court of Appeals of Ohio, Eleventh District, Portage

July 23, 2018

STATE OF OHIO ex rel. BRIAN AMES, Relator-Appellant,

          Civil Appeal from the Portage County Court of Common Pleas, Case No. 2015 CV 00872.

          Victor V. Vigluicci, Portage County Prosecutor, and Denise L Smith, Chief Assistant Prosecutor, 241 South Chestnut Street, For Respondents-Appellees.

          Warner D. Mendenhall, The Law Offices of Warner Mendenhall, For Appellant-Relator.



         {¶1} Appellant, Brian Ames, appeals from the judgment of the Portage County Court of Common Pleas, entering judgment, after a trial to the bench, in favor of appellees, Portage County Board of Commissioners, et al. At issue is whether the trial court erred in concluding Ohio's Open Meetings Act ("OMA") did not apply to four meetings in which appellees convened with a group designated the Jail Overcrowding Task Force ("JOTF"), and one meeting with the Portage County Tea Party ("PCTP") to receive input regarding the county's jail overcrowding problem, the opiate epidemic, as well as potential solutions for these problems. We affirm.

         {¶2} On October 30, 2015, appellant filed his complaint alleging the Portage County Board of Commissioners ("Board"), on multiple occasions, violated Ohio's OMA. Count one alleged the Board failed to establish a reasonable method by which any person may determine the time and place of certain meetings. Count two alleged the Board failed to keep minutes of meetings on the following dates: June 16, 2015; June 20, 2015; July 14, 2015; July 28, 2015; and August 7, 2015; and count three alleged the one-quarter percent sales and use tax increase passed by the Board should be invalidated. The trial court granted summary judgment in appellees' favor on counts one and three. Because, however, the court deemed there were genuine issues of material fact to be litigated on count two, that claim was tried to the bench.

         {¶3} At trial, the parties jointly stipulated to the following: (1) a meeting was prearranged and held at the Portage County Administration Building at 7:30 a.m. eastern standard time on June 16, 2015; (2) Three Board members and Portage County officers attended the June 16, 2015 meeting at the Portage County Administration Building; (3) a meeting of the Jail Overcrowding Task Force ("JOTF") was pre-arranged and held at the Portage County Administration Building on June 30, 2015; (4) Meetings of the JOTF were pre-arranged and held at the Portage County Administration Building at 7:30 a.m. on July 14, 2015 and July 28, 2015; (5) two Board members attended the JOTF meeting on June 30, 2015, July 14, 2015, and July 28, 2015; (6) A meeting was pre-arranged and held at the Portage County Justice Center on August 7, 2015; (7) The Board members and members of the Portage County Tea Party ("PCTP") attended the August 7, 2015 meeting; (8) There are no minutes for any of the meetings specified; and (9) There was no notice provided to the public of the meetings' time and place.

         {¶4} The JOTF was made up of volunteers to provide the Board with input from the community regarding the opioid epidemic that was profoundly affecting the County.[1]Dr. Dean Deperro, Portage County Coroner, testified that in the past five years, drug-related deaths had increased from five in 2011, to 47 in 2016; he further observed that, at the time of the hearing, "we're on track to beat that for [2017]." Moreover, the increase in drug use had created an increase in criminal activity which, in turn, has led to a greater volume of arrests and incarcerations. As a result, the Portage County Jail was overcrowded and overburdened.

         {¶5} On June 30, July 14, and June 28, the JOTF, made up of treatment providers, Portage County employees, general members of the community, and people in the community who had been affected by the opioid problem, convened to offer their opinions on possible avenues the Board might take to help ameliorate the drug epidemic and overcrowding issues. The JOTF was not vested with any authority to render decisions or create policy. And the members did not convene to take action on any specific measure. Moreover, there was no evidence that the Board members who attended directed the meetings or engaged in specific discourse with one another or any of the JOTF members. According to testimony, the Board members were essentially listening to the community members give voice to their concerns.

         {¶6} All members of the JOTF who testified at trial stated their role was to provide the Board with their personal opinions and perspectives on the opioid epidemic. In light of the members' feedback and the nature of the problems on which they were asked to opine, members additionally offered their views on how to address the problems, e.g., funding treatment problems and a jail expansion through a possible sales tax. And, although they were asked to provide such feedback, the JOTF was not delegated any specific or formal "task" to accomplish. The JOTF's role could best be described as informational, as it provided the Board with a focus group to gauge the community's understanding of the problems as well as the members' perspectives on potential solutions to the same.

         {¶7} On August 7, 2015, the Board held a pre-arranged meeting with various members of the PCTP at the Portage County Justice Center. Testimony indicated the meeting was convened to alert PCTP officials of the gravity of the opioid epidemic and the attending problem of jail overcrowding. The PCTP members provided some input on how the Board might effectively communicate the severity of these issues to the community. The meeting was ostensibly organized to obtain the PCTP's support if the Board deemed a tax increase necessary. The meeting concluded with a tour of the jail. At trial, four of the PCTP members who attended the meeting testified.[2] To the extent these individuals could recall details from the meeting, they were consistent in their opinion that it was informational in nature and designed to inform them of the need to improve the jail due to conditions surrounding the opioid problem. And to obtain the PCTP's opinion on a potential tax levy. Similar to the testimony from the members of the JOTF, no decisions were made during the August 7, 2015 meeting.

         {¶8} One Board member, Commissioner Vicki Kline, testified she attended two of the subject meetings. She stated the JOTF was created for "informational purposes" and to obtain community feedback relating to the opioid and jail-overcrowding problems. Commissioner Kline testified the Board pondered placing a tax measure designed to fund solutions to the problems on the next ballot; they concluded, however, it would not pass. Pursuant to statute, the Board held a public hearing and approved a resolution which passed a tax levy. The resolution was submitted to the Ohio Tax Commissioner who concluded Portage County had maxed out its capacity to utilize this tax medium. As a result, the Board rescinded the measure. Later, after a public hearing, the Board approved a different resolution and was able to pass a levy that, as of the hearing date, remained in place. Commissioner Kline acknowledged the Board's minutes, which enabled the assembly of the JOTF, stated its purpose was to help pass a sales and use tax. She testified the JOTF could not pass the tax and the Board, by convening the JOTF, desired to obtain input from people in the community on the problems and their opinions on potential solutions, one of which was the potential implementation of a sales and use tax.

         {¶9} After receiving the evidence, the trial court entered judgment on behalf of appellees. The court concluded that, even though the JOTF was designated a "task force," it was not vested with any authority to make decisions or engage in any official actions. The court emphasized the JOTF was an "eclectic gathering of individuals with diverse reasons for attending the various meetings." And there was no evidence the JOTF, along with the Board, met to "deliberate" or author any binding resolutions. Moreover, the trial court determined the Board's August 7, 2015 meeting with PCTP officials was purely informational and designed to seek the PCTP's support in the event the Board pursued a tax increase. The court found no decisions nor deliberation occurred during this meeting. The trial court accordingly concluded the Board did not violate the OMA. This appeal follows.

         {¶10} Appellant assigns two errors for our review. Each assignment of error essentially challenges the weight of the evidence supporting the trial court's judgment. Weight of the evidence concerns "'the inclination of the greater amount of credible evidence, offered in a trial, to support one side of the issue rather than the other.'" (Citations omitted.) (Emphasis deleted.) Eastley v. Volkman,132 Ohio St.3d 328, 2012-Ohio-2179, ¶12. In a civil case, "'[t]he [reviewing] court * * * weighs the evidence and all reasonable inferences, considers the credibility of witnesses and determines whether in resolving conflicts in the evidence, the [finder of fact] clearly lost its way and created such a manifest miscarriage of justice that the [judgment] must be reversed and a new trial ordered.'" (Citation omitted.) Meeker R ...

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