Ohio Supreme Court rejects use of secret ballots by public bodies

On August 14, 2019, the Ohio Supreme Court unanimously struck down the use of secret ballots during a public meeting in its decision in State ex rel. MORE Bratenahl v. Bratenahl (Slip Opinion 2019-Ohio-3233).

In 2015, Bratenahl Village Council voted, in an open meeting but by secret ballot, to fill the position of president pro tempore. Patricia Meade, publisher of the village’s community newspaper MORE Bratenahl, sought an injunction and declaratory judgment in the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas, arguing that by conducting the vote by secret ballot, the Village of Bratenahl violated the Open Meetings Act, R.C. 121.22. The village argued that the Open Meetings Act did not establish a method of voting but only required that the vote take place in an open meeting, which did occur in this instance. The Court of Common Pleas and 8th District Court of Appeals both ruled in favor of the village and upheld the village’s discretion to use the voting method of its choice. Meade then appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court.

The Ohio Supreme Court ruled for Meade and found that while the term “open” is not defined in R.C. 121.22, the law requires that any “resolution, rule, or formal action of any kind is invalid unless adopted in an open meeting of the public body.” The purpose of the Open Meetings Act, as construed by the Court, is to “require public business to be conducted in a manner that is accessible to the public” (emphasis added). The fact that the village did not have a particular voting procedure does not allow for secret ballots, because secret ballots are not accessible to the public. The Court concluded that the village violated the Open Meetings Act and remanded the case to the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas to issue an injunction.

Election Law, General News