COLUMBUS — Republican state Auditor Dave Yost is asking for public comment on guidance he’s developed for local officials wanting to play host to telephone town hall meetings.
Yost released a draft bulletin on the issue late last week, with plans to formally publish and distribute a final version by the beginning of next month.
The document was prompted by an opinion from Republican Attorney General Mike DeWine earlier this year to Republic state Treasurer Josh Mandel about using public funds for telephone sessions with constituents.
In a letter dated Dec. 31, Mandel’s deputy treasurer and executive counsel asked DeWine’s office whether the treasurer could use public funds to pay for the calls and whether the town halls could be targeted to specific areas of the state or based on participants’ age or gender.
In February, DeWine offered his legal opinion that the treasurer’s office could contract with a private company for the telephone town hall meetings and answer questions about issues not related to his office if a constituent asks first, but must allow people not initially invited to participate to take part.
“The use of town hall meetings or other types of meetings to disseminate information to the public about governmental activities, operations, programs, and policies is a well-established hallmark of a representative democracy and such meetings can promote openness in government and foster good relations with the public,” DeWine wrote.
According to Chris Berry, a spokesman for Mandel, the treasurer’s office has offered a total of eight of the telephone town hall sessions in April and May, with more than 111,000 residents participating.
In an email statement, Berry said no other meetings “are currently scheduled, but we plan to do more in the future.”
He added, “Like Democratic and Republican elected officials throughout Ohio, Treasurer Mandel is proud to conduct telephone town hall meetings to make himself accessible to his constituents so they have an opportunity to ask questions and hold him accountable.”
The sessions have drawn criticism from Democrats, who say Mandel is using public funds to further his reelection efforts.
“Josh Mandel waited until the final six months before the election to start hosting these campaign-themed town halls,” Brian Hester, a spokesman for the Ohio Democratic Party, said in a released statement last month. “... It’s tough to sell ‘transparent and accountable’ when you barely advise the event, handpick the audience, and screen every question.”
Yost said he was not surprised by DeWine’s legal opinion on telephone town hall meetings.
“If you can expend money to rent an auditorium and have a public meeting with constituents, it seems to me you can [use] electronic means to do the same thing,” he said.
But Yost said the setup also comes with the “potential for misuse of public money.”
“You have a potential to screen much more effectively who’s invited,” he said. “You have the opportunity to organize it much more quickly because of the nature of the notice. You also have the ability to screen in or out things that you want to talk about, because questions have to be filtered through the moderator, and not everybody gets to talk.”
In the draft bulletin, Yost noted that public officials could face criminal charges for using public funds to cover the costs of telephone town hall meetings that promote partisan politics.
“Public officials also should be aware they could be personally liable for illegal expenditures of public money,” he wrote. “Under Ohio law, any public official who either authorizes an illegal expenditure of public funds or supervises the accounts of a public office from which such illegal expenditure is made is strictly liable for the amount of the expenditure.”
Among other guidance, Yost is recommending local officials develop policies and procedures for telephone town hall meetings; keep and retain agendas, minutes and other documents related to the sessions; and provide reasonable public notice of the meetings.
Yost added, “... the auditor of state anticipates reviewing documentation maintained by entities conducting telephone town hall conference [calls] during the course of the next regular audit to confirm compliance with the attorney general’s opinion and this bulletin.”
Marc Kovac is the Dix Capital Bureau Chief. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at OhioCapitalBlog.