LORAIN — A couple hours after briefing reporters about an Internal Revenue Service audit of a Lorain tax form mistake, Auditor Ron Mantini informed City Council members about it behind closed doors during last Monday’s Council meeting.
“I wanted to brief Council before it hit the papers,” Mantini said Sunday about the mistake involving 1099 forms not sent to city vendors. The mistake could cost Lorain nearly $210,000 in fines and penalties.
Mantini said he thought the approximately 30-minute executive session was appropriate. Executive sessions — closed-door meetings involving elected and public employees — can be initiated only to discuss land acquisitions or sales, pending or potential litigation, personnel matters and union negotiations.
While Mantini thought the session appropriate, Council President Joel Arredondo said some Council members later complained to him.
“This was public knowledge already, so why do we need executive session?” Arredondo asked.
Councilman Rick Lucente, D-6th Ward, was the only Council member to vote against going into executive session. Lucente has voted no several times since taking office in 2010 when he believed the sessions were unnecessary.
“We represent the people,” he said. “Why not just air it out on the Council floor if Council’s got to make the decisions on the stuff?”
City officials have sought to plug leaks involving executive session. On Monday, Clerk Nancy Greer was seated outside the door where the sessions are held presumably to keep reporters from overhearing through the door what was being discussed. Last year, a Chronicle-Telegram reporter overheard Mayor Chase Ritenauer discussing a water rate increase in executive session, an apparent violation of Ohio open meeting laws.
Council members are asked to sign a confidentiality pledge regarding executive sessions requested in 2011 by former Mayor Tony Krasienko to prevent leaks. The Notice of Non-Disclosure warns elected officials and public workers not to disclose confidential information and that whoever does is guilty of a first-degree misdemeanor. Law Director Pat Riley didn’t return calls Sunday or last week, but in December defended the pledge.
“There are certain things the public isn’t supposed to know at certain times,” Riley said. “This is not a law that is subject to interpretation. It is clear.”
Before entering executive session Monday, Council cited an Ohio statute allowing it to “discuss matters that are kept confidential by federal and/or state law.” Dan Tierney, a spokesman for Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, wouldn’t comment on whether the executive session was appropriate under the statute.
However, Tim Smith, a Freedom of Information and Ohio Sunshine Law expert, said use of the statute was “excessive” and the matter should’ve been discussed publicly. He noted 1099s involve employment.
“I can’t imagine that there’s too much activity that the city gets into where it employs people that isn’t a matter of public record,” said Smith, a Kent State University professor emeritus and former Akron Beacon Journal managing editor.
Actions taken as a result of illegal executive sessions can be nullified, but Smith said there are no other penalties under Sunshine Laws.
“There’s no teeth in the statute,” he said.