Local government works best when the roles of public officials are clear

By Thomas Palmer - Galion Law Director

Now that the aerial fire truck has made its way to Galion, I would like to discuss the processing of checks which was called into question over the last couple of weeks.

Local government works best when the roles of public officials are clear, and even better where they are followed. Recent comments have not presented an accurate portrayal of these roles, and risk leaving an incorrect impression in citizens’ minds about ways in which local government functions. I would like to provide some clarification.

The suggestion has been made recently that city treasurers in Ohio have an ability to investigate, and the ability to refuse to sign, checks presented for signature. I have found no support for these positions, and none has been provided to me by anyone over the last year and a half. The most recent related Ohio Supreme Court decision, in fact, ordered a treasurer to sign a check despite that treasurer objecting to the validity of that payment decision. This type of duty is referred to as “ministerial,” that is, a function performed without the use of judgment by the person performing the act or duty. This is the law as developed in Columbus, not Galion.

There are likely several reasons why this is the case, among which is one illustrated by the recent fire truck check signing issue. The Treasurer for the City of Galion based a refusal to sign a check on her read of a single section of the Ohio Revised Code. The fact of the matter is, however, that such sections almost never stand on their own, each working in conjunction with others. The section cited by the Treasurer, for instance, is actually referred and potentially impacted by no less than thirty-five other sections of the Ohio Revised Code.

To determine if a particular course of action is correct, it is necessary to look at some or all of those sections – but the process does not end there. One then needs to look at decisions from Ohio courts to determine how each has been interpreted, and then consider other sources, including Ohio Attorney General opinions. For the fire truck matter, there were dozens of cases and several such opinions on point – just one of the opinions laying out over twelve different scenarios to consider. Lastly, because the City is under fiscal emergency, it is also necessary to obtain past and current advice and approvals from those outside City government who provide oversight, and then to see how such advice and approvals mesh with each and every identified option. All of these documents and resources need to be consulted to render an informed opinion, not just a handful deemed necessary and requested by a treasurer.

At its core, it’s really a matter of common sense. Can you imagine the chaos that would ensue if city treasurers in Ohio were afforded the ability to refuse to sign checks, in essence vetoing legislation, based on their own amateur readings of state and local law?

This past Tuesday, it became apparent that an action to require a signature would have taken days or weeks, not minutes. It was the choice to present to Council an option to move forward quickly with the purchase and to avoid any type of court proceeding, and the choice of Council to enact those ordinances. Yes, that course or action risked the appearance that the Treasurer had discretion not to sign, but occasionally effective public service requires one to act on “behind the scenes” information and thereby risk such a result. This was an example of government working well, and I am proud to be associated with public servants who put faith in their constituents to take time to understand such actions.

A city treasurer has very limited duties in Ohio. Yet a treasurer is in a unique position to serve in a positive role by placing himself or herself in a position to gain information; by being an ongoing and collaborative part of city government; by attending not only required meetings, but also other public meetings where financial matters are discussed; and by sharing observations gained. Setting oneself apart and failing to access available resources, creating one’s own “take” of what documentation might be required in a given situation, and then refusing to act based on that uniformed assumption, however, is a course of action which risks much and is inconsistent with statutory and case law.

In closing, I want to emphasize that the Treasurer’s recent description of her recent public records request mischaracterized the City’s response. She claimed that she was told that what she asked for was not a public record. This was not the case. Actually, she asked for six documents or sets of documents; in two of those, she did so in a way that would require agreement with her single section interpretation, and thus not as a valid request. The other four items were responded to consistent with the Ohio Sunshine Law, and she did receive documents with those responses.

Thomas Palmer

By Thomas Palmer

Galion Law Director