Guest column/Shadows lengthen on access to public records

Every year, Sunshine Week, which runs today through Saturday, underscores the importance of open government across the nation. It is a perfect moment to share concerns in Ohio about ever-growing exceptions to an open records law that should ensure you have access to information about what your government officials do and how well they do it.

Whether you’re a tea party activist, just an everyday citizen or an unrepentant liberal, we think you should be able to agree on this subject. The exception train needs to slow down.

Ohio’s statute once was considered a model open records law nationally. Most public officials are well-intentioned, and it’s often the case that each idea for a new exception has a justification that appears reasonable in isolation. It is the cumulative effect that alarms us.

We now have 29 categories of records that are secret under Ohio law. They’ve run out of single letters, so the latest exception was lettered “cc.” I have seen proposals already in the new legislative session involving fees for county recorder records, new restrictions on school-related records and more. Certain categories require repairs, too. For example, the lack of information on how taxpayer money is being spent at many Ohio charter schools should be fixed.

Government is a custodian of public records, not the owner. Restrictions on access should leap a high bar; there should be no reasonable doubt that secrecy is the better option.

For example, no one would argue that everything in an active criminal investigation should be public record. However, did you know that a criminal case file isn’t considered closed in many Ohio jurisdictions if the defendant ever could file something in the case for any reason? This blocks the work of not only journalists but also organizations such as the Ohio Innocence Project that have freed people from prison for crimes they didn’t commit. (And, by the way, many Innocence Project investigations show that law enforcement arrested the right person.)

Government officials also complain about the amount of staff time and expense it takes to manage records requests, particularly with the explosion of records in the Internet age. That’s a reasonable concern. Still, if there weren’t so many exceptions and complexities in our open records laws, it would be faster to review records with much less need to redact information by blacking it out either on paper or digitally. In other words, making more records open makes it easier for government to handle requests.

There have been positive developments in recent months, too. We urge citizens to make use of the new open records mediation process announced in 2012 by Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine. This is a good way to resolve disputes without having to hire a lawyer and go to court, and the process can be initiated with a simple phone call or filling out a form on the attorney general’s website.

However, the program is limited in that both sides have to agree, and it only applies to local governmental bodies. We hope a way can be found to expand this in the future. Most states have a stronger appeal process.

The other aspect of “sunshine law” involves open meetings. Here, I think the situation is more positive in Ohio. We only are aware of one pending measure to expand the use of secret meetings called executive sessions. We would like to see better record-keeping or recording in executive sessions, and our association hopes to pursue that idea in the coming months.

We also have been working positively with government groups to set good standards for situations in which it might make sense to allow some members of a board to participate remotely through audio or video technology.

Please use Sunshine Week to let your elected officials know that transparency matters. And if you need help making contact or need any background information, just let us know, because a government operating in lengthening shadows will not serve the people properly in the long run.

(Hetzel is the executive director of the Ohio Newspaper Association and president of the Ohio Coalition for Open Government.)