Jackie Lewis finally has her day

Lewis, whose son Shaun died of an overdose in October, recently met with reps from the OneOhio, which is tasked with distributing more than half of the state’s billion-dollar opioid settlement.
Shaun, Ava and Jackie Lewis
Shaun, Ava and Jackie LewisCourtesy Jackie Lewis

To be fair, I wasn't on the guest list. 

So when I introduced myself to the representatives from OneOhio who were about to meet with Jackie Lewis, including board chair Larry Kidd, they told me I wasn't welcome. 

A month earlier, I had written a story about Jackie and her son Shaun, who died from an overdose in October. Jackie has, for years, tried to get the attention of state and local politicians. And beginning last summer, she set her sights on the OneOhio Foundation, the entity responsible for distributing more than half of Ohio's billion dollar opioid settlement.

In August, she attended a One Ohio board meeting, but it offered no opportunity for public comment, so she wasn't allowed to speak. After my story ran, OneOnio reached out to her to arrange a meeting.

That's how we ended up at the Polaris Co-Hatch – next to the Cheesecake Factory and across from Benihana – in late May. Jackie asked Shawn Bain, a drug free workplace educator and former law enforcement officer, and me to join her and witness the meeting. And then they told Jackie they couldn't meet with her if I was present – if a journalist was present. She was flustered. I didn't want to keep her from her meeting. So I bowed out and found a nearby table where I watched as Jackie and Shawn entered a glass-walled meeting room, sat down and told her story. 

Jackie's demands are shaped by her own experience. She wants support for kinship care for those taking care of the children of loved ones, workplace education, and free access to treatment when people want it. But more importantly, she wants the families and loved ones of those who have been affected to have a voice – to play a bigger role in how the settlement money is spent.

Jackie is a slight but fierce woman. Every time I've met with her, she has reminded me of her demands. Her late son and her granddaughter, who she is now raising, are always somewhere close to the surface. She brings their photos with her virtually everywhere she goes. 

On April 25, I sat next to her at Franklin County Common Pleas Court for a hearing as Harm Reduction Ohio was seeking a restraining order against OneOhio, asserting that they were continuing to violate Ohio public meetings laws despite an earlier court decision. There were five attorneys representing OneOhio and one for the advocacy organization Harm Reduction Ohio. David versus Goliath. 

John Greiner, the attorney for Harm Reduction Ohio, argued that OneOhio was still violating Ohio's open meetings laws, and that the board members held private meetings after Judge Mark Serrott’s early March decision ruling OneOhio is a state entity and governed by said laws. Greiner argued that it was "willful noncompliance." He said that the OneOhio board does not "seem to care about public participation. … When the mother of a man who died of an opioid overdose is told she can't speak at a meeting."

That mother was Jackie. 

OneOhio attorney Rob Zimmerman argued that their actions weren't intentional. That the board was still adjusting in the wake of the pandemic. Jackie's stomach grumbled. She told me she was too nervous to eat before coming here. She's been in this building before – with her son when he was struggling. 

In the end, Judge Serrott issued a restraining order requiring OneOhio to comply with Ohio's open meetings laws moving forward.

Jackie didn't think it was enough. She said she felt frustrated, like the OneOhio attorney glossed over things, like they knew what they were doing and just did it anyway. 

There's a lot of money on the table. It’s money that could improve lives now. Across the country, decisions like this are being made in courtrooms, in boardrooms and in statehouse hallways – decisions that, to people like Jackie, feel divorced from the pain that they have experienced.

So I made the journey to Polaris and watched through the glass as she passed around her photos.

After an hour, Shawn and Jackie walked out. Both agreed it was a good meeting. Jackie said she felt heard and was able to share her ideas. The OneOhio folks took notes and shared stories. They said they’d take her ideas back to the full board, and that they’d connect her with the person representing her region, Franklin County, for the board. She pushed back and said that she didn't want another phone number. Instead, she asked that they set up and attend the meeting. 

Board chair Larry Kidd told them that they didn't want me in the room because of the lawsuits, and because they didn't feel they could be as candid with the media present. I do wonder why they can’t be candid in public about such an important topic. I also know that some journalists have stories, and that we have lost people. And we believe that the public deserves a space to speak.  

So, here are my two asks: Begin every meeting with a moment of silence to hold space for those who have died and those who still struggle. And then let the public speak. Even if only for 10 minutes, let Ohioans speak.

Correction: The article originally stated that Judge Serrott did not issue a restraining order requiring OneOhio to comply with Ohio's open meeting laws. While Serrott didn't issue an order restraining OneOhio from spending settlement money or hiring a permenant director, the judge's order does require OneOhio to comply with the Open Meetings act. Matter News regrets the error.

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