Public Bodies Cannot Contract out of Ohio Sunshine Laws

In a recent Ninth District Court of Appeals case, Teodecki v. Litchfield Township, 2015-Ohio-2309 the former fire chief sued the township and trustees for among other things, breach of contract relating to the release of an investigation report regarding the former chief’s activities in her role as fire chief.

Shortly after the report was completed (but before it was released to the public or any charges brought), Chief Teodecki resigned her position as part of a separation agreement with the Township under with the Township would not to pursue charges against her and (possibly) not to disclose the results of the investigation – whether the confidentiality clause was part of the agreement at the time it was executed is a matter of dispute.

After resigning, Mrs. Teodecki wrote a letter to the local newspaper criticizing the Township Trustees. The Trustees, seeking apparently to exact some revenge for the letter to the editor, voted to release the investigation report to the public. Mrs. Teodecki then brought suit claiming that Trustees breached the separation agreement by making the investigation report public.

However, as the Ninth District Court of Appeals ruled, even assuming the non-disclosure clause was part of the agreement, there was no breach because the Trustees could not legally keep the investigation report from the public. The confidentiality clause was against public policy of open public records, and, absent any of the statutory exemptions mandating release of public records; the investigation report could not be withheld from the public.

The Court’s analysis of the investigation report’s status as a public record is thoughtful and deserves note as well.

We conclude that the Report prepared by Sergeant McDermott following his extensive investigation into the Litchfield Township Fire Department and Mrs. Teodecki falls squarely within R.C. 149.43’s definition of a public record. The Report, which was commissioned by the township and kept in the township’s possession, was a document detailing findings concerning the fire department’s alleged noncompliance with state law. The township’s fire department is without question a public office. Thus, by statute, the Report is required to be disclosed to the general public.

This is a particularly enjoyable case it is rare to see public officials seeking to have Ohio’s public records law read in a keeping with the intent of the law. And, because in this case the old maxim proved true: Sunlight is the best disinfectant.