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Franklin County judge orders Ohio's opioid settlement fund to follow public meetings laws

OxyContin pills are arranged for a photo at a pharmacy in Montpelier, Vermont.
Toby Talbot

A Franklin County judge has ordered the foundation tasked with doling out nearly half a billion dollars in state opioid settlement funds to follow Ohio's open meetings laws, after it was accused of not doing so.

Harm Reduction Ohio, a nonprofit that advocates for drug policies, asked the court for a restraining order preventing OneOhio Recovery Foundation from spending over $58 million from opioid settlement funds.

Franklin County Common Pleas Judge Mark Serrott did not issue the restraining order, but did order OneOhio to follow open meetings laws moving forward. He took issue with Harm Reduction Ohio's request to halt the foundation from spending that money.

"We have public interest in trying to get these distributed, so we can help people who are addicted," Serrott said.

OneOhio is a nonprofit the state formed 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.

Serrott issued a ruling in March that OneOhio should be treated as a public entity. He said he doesn't think OneOhio was intentionally trying to skirt open meeting laws, but needs to start complying moving forward.

John Greiner, the attorney for Harm Reduction Ohio, explained to Serrott how OneOhio was harming the public with their actions.

"I think there is irreparable injury when the public is shut out of the process. When stakeholders are shut out of the process. When the mother of a man who died from an opioid overdose is told she cannot speak at a meeting," Greiner said.

Rob Zimmerman, the attorney for OneOhio, said the foundation is adjusting after being formed during the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. He said the foundation had to cancel a meeting last week with the executive committee because of concern the meeting would violate open meetings laws.

Zimmerman said halting the spending of the $58 million is wrong because the opioid epidemic is the largest and greatest health crisis the state currently faces and people are still dying from it.

"Democrats and Republicans cannot agree on the time of day, but they could agree on the creation of OneOhio. We have to very honest here. The plaintiff wants to drag that to a halt," Zimmerman said.

Serrott said he didn't think Harm Reduction Ohio was intentionally trying to hold up funds or keep people from getting the help they need.

"(Harm Reduction Ohio) did a lot for Narcan. They did a lot for saving lives in this state," Serrott said.

In a statement after the judge's decision, spokesperson for OneOhio Connie Luck said the ruling empowers the board to continue its work to distribute funds to fight addiction.

“It is very, very hard to understand the motivation behind any effort to block Ohioans impacted by addiction from getting badly needed resources for treatment, recovery and prevention. It’s almost as if Ohio is battling the drug companies all over again," Luck said.

Harm Reduction Ohio President Dennis Cauchon accused OneOhio of holding committee meetings since March 10 and not properly notifying or allowing the public to participate. Cauchon said the decision on the restraining order was not what he was hoping for.

"I'm happy that the judge ordered them to comply in the future. But we didn't get, like, what we wanted about all the violations in the past. We have to wait until July," he said.

Cauchon was hoping the judge would take action on those past violations and prevent the board from spending the money or hiring an executive director.

Jackie Lewis is the mother of Shaun Lewis, who died in October from an overdose. Lewis was present for the proceedings and said she attended a meeting that month and was frustrated that the foundation never asked for input from the public during the meeting.

"I am a public citizen who pays taxes and have been living in the trenches of this for over 20 years with my son," Lewis said.

Lewis said she has volunteered to raise awareness of drugs for nearly a decade and wants the funds from the opioid settlement to go towards better treatment centers, families who were impacted and any businesses that want to have training for their employees and frontline managers.

"I've been pounding on the doors for a long, long time with the mayor's office, with the foundation and not getting any responses," Lewis said.

The case now awaits a July 12 hearing where a decision on the case may happen.

George Shillcock is a reporter for 89.7 NPR News. He joined the WOSU newsroom in April 2023 following three years as a reporter in Iowa with the USA Today Network.