City council members and other public officials know that there can be a fine line between public and private. It is necessary for public figures to balance their private communications with the need for public transparency. Sometimes, a seemingly innocuous activity like exchanging private emails or text messages can land you in hot water.
This is what happened to several members of the Cincinnati City Council recently. Five members were found to have privately exchanged texts, emails and phone calls regarding Cincinnati’s mayor and its city manager. A watchdog group is now suing them for violating local transparency laws.
Private communications from public figures
Five council members have been named in the lawsuit. The five members sent private text messages, phone calls and emails discussing their position on Cincinnati’s mayor and a controversial city manager. Their actions raised suspicion when they released a joint public statement regarding these issues without having held a public meeting.
The local government watchdog group that is suing them claims that these council members were deciding important public matters in secret, which violates Ohio’s Open Meetings Act. This law stipulates that all meetings of a public body must be open to the public.
A warning for public entities
This case serves as an important example for public entities in Ohio, California and the rest of the United States. Private communication, no matter how seemingly irrelevant, can unintentionally violate local, state or even federal transparency laws. It can also prompt litigation and spark a public-relations nightmare. Any city council members, city employees or public entities must take care to keep their communications public or ensure that their private communications comply with the law.