Officials at local public meetings more often than not may find themselves addressing empty chairs rather than community members.
But there are a few faithful, frequent attendees who make the trip to each meeting and they say it's an effort well worth making.
"I just like to keep an eye on the school system," said Coal Run resident R.B. Morris, 68, who attends nearly every Fort Frye Local Schools Board of Education meeting. "I tell people it's the best show in town, and it's free."
EVAN BEVINS The Marietta Times
Warren Local Board of Education member John Nichols, center, makes a point during Monday’s board meeting as fellow board member Debbie West, front left, and 14 people in the audience listen.
Ohio law requires public entities like city councils, county commissions and boards of education and trustees to conduct their business when and where the public can observe.
Whether the public chooses to do so, however, varies with the entity and the matters being discussed.
"If there's not an issue particular to them, they tend not to come," Washington County Commissioner Tim Irvine said.
Ohio's open meetings law
The Ohio Open Meetings Act requires public bodies in Ohio to take official action and conduct all deliberations upon official business only in open meetings where the public may attend and observe.
Public bodies must provide advance notice to the public indicating when and where each meeting will take place, and in the case of special meetings, the specific topics that the public body will discuss.
The public body must take full and accurate minutes of all meetings and make these meeting minutes available to the public, except in the case of permissible executive sessions.
No vote or other decision-making on the matter(s) discussed may take place during the executive session.
Source: Ohio Sunshine Laws 2012, www.ohioattorneygeneral.gov
Marietta Mayor Joe Matthews said many people tend to take a "not-in-my-backyard" approach to issues.
"If it's somewhere else, they don't come, but if it's them, baby, they'll be out in full force," he said.
Area school districts often see the same results at their board meetings.
Hundreds of Warren Local school district residents gathered in the Warren High School cafeteria for a February 2011 meeting when the board of education made numerous cuts to set aside funding for building repairs after the third rejection of a bond issue to build new schools. Ten, 20 or more people have attended other meetings as the board and district have wrestled with how to address the aging facilities.
Even when it's not standing room only, the board sees half a dozen to a dozen members of the public in its meeting room, said board member Sid Brackenridge.
"That has been normal since we started the building discussions," he said.
Before that, there were often no members of the public attending.
Fleming resident Cliff Pettey, 41, attends about eight Warren school board meetings a year, a habit he started before the bond issue was introduced. He said he feels a responsibility to do so as a parent of three children in the district, as well as a resident.
"As a member of the community, it kind of gives me an opportunity to participate in the stewardship of the schools," he said.
Pettey said he's glad to see more people at the meetings because "it's important that people be involved in the decisions being made by the school board."
On the other hand, chairs provided for the public are generally empty at Wolf Creek Local Board of Education meetings - at least until Waterford High School seniors show up to fulfill a requirement to attend a school board meeting for their government class.
"I think it's probably 'cause everything seems to be running pretty well in the schools," Wolf Creek board President Hugh Arnold said, crediting the stability of the administration and the quality of teachers.
Arnold said people with concerns are encouraged to go through the proper channels at a school before coming to the board, because it can be hard to resolve complaints at the meetings themselves. Residents are always welcome at board meetings, but the community is small enough that many people can keep up on the latest events without attending the meeting, he said.
For some people, it doesn't matter what's on the agenda at a school board or council meeting - they're going to be there.
That includes Morris.
He's been attending school board meetings for about 15 years, starting when he had three sons in the district and a teachers' strike was looming. But he's kept at it, because he wants to know what the board is doing and why they make the decisions they do - even if he doesn't understand or agree with their reasoning sometimes.
Junior Nolan, 78, attended Marietta City Council meetings regularly for about 30 years. Although he doesn't go now because of health reasons, he said he still gets called by people concerned about issues in the city.
His advice to them: Go to a council meeting and "let your voice be heard."
"Somebody needs to speak out. Somebody needs to get out and see what's going on," he said.
Nolan said he addressed issues even if they didn't affect him directly because he wanted to protect people's tax money and help the city. He felt it was a responsibility to be "looking after Marietta," but he also liked to do it.
"I just enjoyed going to city council. I had the time to do it. And I enjoyed speaking up for the City of Marietta," Nolan said.
Marietta Councilman Tom Vukovic, D-4th Ward, said that while there usually aren't too many folks in the community building at Lookout Park when council holds its meetings the first and third Thursdays of the month, a number of people have told him they watch the proceedings on WCMO Channel 15. He said he welcomes input from the public even, or especially, those who disagree with him.
"It's refreshing to hear from people," he said, adding that sometimes hearing from a constituent has changed his mind on an issue.
Vukovic said he'd like to see more people attend - and possibly have televised - council's committee meetings.
"City council meetings are interesting, but I think committee meetings are much more interesting because that's where we conduct our business," he said.
Committee meetings provide a setting in which members pose questions of residents and city officials about certain issues. If they feel satisfied with the information, Vukovic said, the committee will ask the law director to prepare legislation for the regular council meeting.
By the time the regular meeting rolls around, "most people have made up their minds because we've already been through the discussion," he said.
Fort Frye Local Board of Education member Charlie Schilling said committee meetings are a good time for people to present ideas and have conversations with the board.
"It's more of an open forum in those types of meetings," he said.
The Washington County commissioners last year began holding their regular minutes meetings at different locations around the county on occasion to provide a chance for people to attend who couldn't make the usual 9 a.m. Thursday sessions in the courthouse annex. The most they've ever had attend is about a dozen or so at New Matamoras Elementary, Commissioner Irvine said.
But that doesn't mean the commissioners aren't in touch with their constituents.
"People call us on the phone. We get plenty of emails," he said.
Some people who regularly attend public meetings are frustrated or surprised that more people don't do the same.
Lawrence Township resident Bob Clark, 68, stepped up his attendance at Frontier Local Board of Education meetings after it was announced that the district was considering closing Lawrence Elementary School. During that time, he's been to meetings at schools throughout the district and, while there's often a Lawrence contingent there, he sees fewer people from other communities.
"I'd like to see more," he said. The people who don't attend are "either well pleased with the education they're getting or they're not interested," he said.
Marietta City Schools Superintendent Harry Fleming said it's unrealistic to expect a large number of people to regularly attend meetings, given their busy schedules and the routine nature of what often goes on in the sessions.
"Most of the board business is just that - it's just board business the board has to pass to keep the district running," he said.
But the administration offers reports at meetings to keep the board and public informed about what's going on. And when the district has called on residents for input, they have answered, Fleming said. For example, they received more volunteers they could accommodate for a focus group looking at the responses to a survey sent home to parents.