Legal battles by Brian Ames bring changes to Portage County meetings
For decades, Brian Ames worked with Lockheed Martin handling multimillion dollar projects for civilian and military contracts.
Once, at the close of a $30 million project, his boss found $1.38 left unaccounted for in the budget. It drove Ames crazy wondering how he’d missed the detail.
It’s that kind of attention that drew Ames to taking on the alleged violations of Ohio law by local governments in Portage County, particularly the so-called Sunshine Laws dealing with public records and open meetings.
To most citizens, open meetings laws and public records are just part of a vast, misunderstood haze of government.
But to Ames, even the smallest details of a local trustees meeting matter.
“There’s only one acceptable amount of openness, and that is all open,” said the Randolph Township resident who currently has legal cases against two townships, the county and his own political party, the Republicans of Portage County.
One case is currently tied up in the Supreme Court of Ohio. Another is in the 11th District Court of Appeals, with a second case ready for appeal soon. Two cases against Portage County Board of Commissioners detail more than 130 alleged violations of Ohio law.
How it began
His quest started 20 years ago when the commissioners announced they planned to increase the county sales tax.
“They came out, told everyone they wanted to put it on the ballot and said it would not apply to vehicles. And they did that because the car dealerships were hollering about the tax increase. It wasn’t in the ballot language, and afterward, once everyone had voted, they came out and said it would be a tax on vehicles too,” said Ames, claiming the vote was invalid because the issue, which failed. was misrepresented to the voters.
Then, while reading the Record-Courier in early 2015, Ames saw that the commissioners were planning to go for the tax increase again.
“And I said ‘Uh uh, you’re not fooling me twice,’” he said.
So he began to pay close attention to every detail of every meeting and every commissioner.
During the summer of 2015, board members met individually and sometimes together for several information-gathering sessions. They even formed the Jail Overcrowding Task Force — which consisted of local medical and social service experts, as well as concerned citizens — to educate themselves about the county’s opioid crisis before making a public decision.
After public hearings were conducted, the board realized that if the tax increase went to the ballot, it would fail.
So they voted to impose it, pledging to use the expected $25 million revenue to combat the county’s opioid crisis and expand the jail.
But Ames, checking every schedule and reading every meeting minute, realized there were no minutes or public notices for those informational meetings.
History repeats itself
“The liberties of a people never were, nor ever will be, secure, when the transactions of their rulers may be concealed from them ... But to cover with the veil of secrecy the common routine of business, is an abomination in the eyes of every intelligent man, and every friend to his country,” said Founding Father Patrick Henry in his June 1788 speech to the Virginia Convention.
That’s also the sentiment Ames expresses when talking about the importance of public records.
It’s not about the money. His case in the Supreme Court has brought more than $35,000 in legal fees to attorney Warner Mendenhall.
It’s also not about partisanship. Ames said he backed Republican Sabrina Christian-Bennett in her run for office, hoping she’d pay closer attention to the law. But Ames said she continues to allow the board to violate the law.
“There’s a difference between party and politics. Government is politics. And public records, they’re not about partisanship. I’ve got a lot of other things I’d rather be doing than taking these officials to court. But I’m the guy who can fix this problem,” he said.
A case against Brimfield Township has resulted in a changed system, whereby the trustees are specific about why they hold an executive, or closed-door, session.
“They will now be a model for how local governments should operate in this county,” he said.
Ames plans to appeal the latest decision by visiting Judge Richard Reinbold Jr., a retired judge from Stark County, who sided with the commissioners in his case about the 2015 meetings.
Ames said judges in district courts typically don’t care about open meetings law. It’s trivial, practically meaningless, they say. When you go to a public meeting, it’s more of a field trip than an act of government, he said, mocking what he said judges have expressed.
But to Ames, public meetings and detailed meeting minutes are integral to an informed democracy. When a judge asked him what the harm was for a minor error in a public record, Ames got serious.
“The citizens are being denied their rights under the law. That is not a minor error,” he said.