Spots of shade shroud transparency in Ohio amid the start of Sunshine Week, a national observance stressing the importance of public records and open meetings in a democracy.
As evidenced by court complaints and findings — such as city council members illegally "meeting" via text messages — government officials do not always respect both the law and the public's right to know.
Still, all told, the strength of Ohio's public records and open meetings laws granting Ohioans oversight of their government still are considered among of the best in the nation.
But, experts say, state and local governments too often seem to go out of their way to look for ways to deny the release of records that belong to the public — not the bureaucrats.
"My biggest area of ongoing concern is the abuse of (public records law) exemptions by some governmental bodies, particularly attorney-client privilege and trade secrets in the open records law and the abuse of executive session provisions for open meetings," said Dennis Hetzel, president of the Ohio News Media Foundation.
"We also regularly see efforts to dodge the clear intent of the open meetings law that elected officials discuss and deliberate in public. Maybe the $11,000 fine and $90,000 award of attorney fees levied against some Cincinnati City Council members last week will serve as a reminder that the courts aren’t looking kindly on the use of text messages and emails to end-run public discussion," he said.
Less than two months after assuming their new offices, Gov. Mike DeWine and Attorney General Dave Yost are advising their agencies and clients to honor — and not duck — the public's requests for records — and accountability.
"Gov. DeWine has advised agencies it is always preferable to find a pathway to help records requesters get the documents they are seeking rather than denying requests outright," said press secretary Dan Tierney. "If an initial request may seem overly broad, it is best practice for an agency to work with the requester to help determine exactly what records are being sought or explain how records are organized so a valid request can be made."
Yost, who first learned the value of governmental transparency as a newspaper reporter, was quick as Delaware County prosecutor and as state auditor to denounce efforts to evade Sunshine laws. He now has an even bigger pulpit.
"A people is only as free as the flow of information about their government," Yost said. "Without open meetings and public records, we have no way of knowing what our government is up to — and the government will then belong to the politicians, not the people."
As Ohio Senate president, new state Auditor Keith Faber led the effort to enact a law that has helped level the playing field between governments who deny record requests and average Ohioans. Few Ohioans could afford to hire a lawyer and go to court to fight taxpayer-paid lawyers over the questionable denial of records.
But since late 2016, a $25 public records complaint program in the Ohio Court of Claims has handled 237 cases, with about half resolved in mediation to leverage loose records and with 78 others advancing to rulings by Jeffery Clark, a special master with expertise in records laws. Members of the public have filed 63 percent of the cases, with news media organizations — including The Dispatch — also filing cases in pursuit of records for stories.
Rulings, for example, have instructed Cleveland to release denied records regarding its bid for a second Amazon headquarters and ordered Jefferson County to release surveillance-camera video of the non-fatal shooting of a county judge. The Dispatch won a ruling requiring Powell police to release records it had withheld regarding the domestic-violence investigation of a former Ohio State University assistant football coach.
Hetzel would like to see the law amended to allow the Court of Claims to also handle complaints alleging violation of open-meetings laws, such as public body meetings in executive session for improper reasons. The program does not handle cases involving court records, since the courts control their own records and are not bound by public records laws.
The soon-to-retire Hetzel, who also serves as president of the Ohio Coalition for Open Government, was pleased that a recently enacted state law stipulates most video captured by police officer body cameras is a public record to supplant a more-restrictive hodge-podge of local policies.