Springfield News-Sun

Judge: Opioid settlement funds must be handled publicly

- By Jordan Laird

A Franklin County judge has ordered a nonprofit overseeing $440 million in state opioid settlement funds to follow Ohio Sunshine Laws governing public meetings and making decisions in the open.

In his ruling Thursday, Franklin County Common Pleas Judge Mark Serrott said the Oneohio Recovery Foundation’s argument that it is a private entity is disingenuo­us and the public should be informed on how the government intends to spend enormous amounts of money.

“This is especially true in the context of the thousands, if not more, of families tragically impacted by the death of loved ones from overdoses and the untold human wreckage caused by opioid addiction,” Serrott said.

The state formed the Oneohio Recovery Foundation last year to allocate more than half of the $808 million Ohio secured in 2021 from suing opioid distributo­rs for their role in the opioid crisis. The foundation’s 29 board members — who are appointed by the governor, attorney general, legislativ­e leaders and 19 regions across Ohio — are tasked with giving out grants and finding long-term solutions to the opioid epidemic.

The rest of the settlement money is going to local government­s and the state.

Harm Reduction Ohio, a nonprofit that advocates for drug policies, accused Oneohio of not being transparen­t in its discussion about how the money would be spent and sued the foundation in August.

Whether Oneohio actually violated public meetings laws will be decided after a future court hearing where both sides can present evidence.

Harm Reduction Ohio has said Oneohio has conducted some of its meetings without sufficient advance notice or via teleconfer­ence, which nobody other than board members could access.

The foundation has previously stated it is not subject to Ohio’s open meeting laws and has kept its subcommitt­ees’ meetings private.

Connie Luck, a spokespers­on for the foundation, said that as the court process moves forward, the foundation will continue to conduct its business in an open and transparen­t manner, “as it has done since its first board meeting.”

“We remain confident the Oneohio (memorandum of understand­ing) clearly establishe­s the Oneohio Recovery Foundation’s status as a private, nonprofit organizati­on, and not a government agency,” Luck said. “We are eager to put this resource-draining issue behind us so the foundation can focus on its work helping to save lives in ways our state has never been able to do before.”

The memo detailing how settlement money will be distribute­d and establishi­ng the foundation states “meetings shall be open, and documents shall be public to the same extent they would be if the Foundation was a public entity,” Serrott pointed out in his order.

Dennis Cauchon, president of Harm Reduction Ohio, said the foundation’s board “needs to realize it’s not a private club.”

“It can’t act in secret. It needs to start treating the impacted population with respect, as partners rather than a nuisance,” Cauchon said. “People died for this money. Their memories should be honored, and the people who love them should be involved in how this half billion dollars gets spent.”

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