The sun is shining a little brighter these days on those who violate Ohio’s public records laws. That’s a good development at a time when there are fewer local government watchdogs as many small newspapers shrink in size.
While most government officials do follow the law when it comes to releasing documents, too many still don’t.
Last year in Ohio there were 4,727 reports of public records violations, with 325 citations issued by the state auditor’s office against 262 government entities. Most of the citations came because officials had not completed public records training as required by law.
New state Auditor Keith Faber announced this week that his office will be conducting public record audits more often: every two years instead of every three. Faber is also working on an online “scoreboard” that will show how governments are doing when it comes to complying with Ohio’s Public Records Act. That alone should encourage more compliance across the state.
Faber, to his credit, is also seeking to expand a dispute resolution program that is run by the Ohio Court of Claims. Now in its third year, the program provides a quicker, less costly way for those with public record complaints to get them addressed.
Instead of filing a lawsuit to obtain access to records, a person simply files a complaint with the Court of Claims and pays a $25 fee. Mediation is then used to try to resolve the dispute, with the decision made by a Court of Claims judge considered binding. The losing side can appeal the decision to a local court of appeals but such challenges have been relatively rare.
Faber is calling for legislation this year that would authorize the Court of Claims to use a similar process to resolve complaints involving violations of Ohio’s Open Meetings Act, which requires almost all public business to be conducted in the open. Such a bill would be a no-brainer.
Unfortunately, the public too often must fight for access to records and meetings. There are now over 30 different types of records that can’t be made public, and the list is growing. While meeting rules state when they must be “open” and when closed executive sessions can be called to keep the public out, they are not always followed.
Faber’s ideas for more frequent public record audits, to post violations online, and to expand the Court of Claims records process to open meetings, are all commendable. It’s appropriate they come during Sunshine Week, an annual reminder of the importance of government transparency and the freedom of information.
A little sunshine always makes government work better.