COLUMBUS -- The state treasurer's office is downplaying criticism of its decision to consider public telephone sessions to connect with Ohioans -- a move Democrats say amounts to election year campaigning on the public dime.
Republican Josh Mandel sought a legal opinion from Republican Attorney General Mike DeWine's office on whether he could play host to so-called "telephone town hall meetings."
The latter would be arranged by private firms "that specialize in simultaneously placing automated calls to thousands of constituents," who, in turn, could join a conference call with Mandel to discuss issues related to the treasurer's office.
The setup is used by other elected officials, including members of Congress, and participants' "party affiliation, ideology or voter status" are not considered when inviting people to join calls.
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.
Earlier this week, DeWine offered his legal opinion that the treasurer's office could contract with a private company for the telephone town hall meetings, an answer questions about issues not related to his office if a constituent asks first and 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.
A spokesman for Mandel said Friday that no telephone town hall meetings have been planned to date.
"Treasurer Mandel takes pride in being accessible to his constituents," spokesman Chris Berry said in a released statement. "Our office is looking into hosting telephone town hall meetings because we believe in empowering citizens to question their public officials and hold them accountable."
But the proposal is drawing criticism from Democrats, who say Mandel and other Republican officeholders could use public funds to further their reelection efforts.
"Mike DeWine just rolled out a point-by-point recipe guiding politicians on how to use taxpayer dollars for politically beneficial, self-promotional purposes," David Pepper, a Democrat who hopes to unseat DeWine, said in a released statement. "... Instead of providing clear boundaries of taxpayer-funded self-promotion, or clear cautions about the potential misuse of taxpayer funds, this opinion is so open-ended that it makes it inevitable that inappropriate use of public dollars will occur."