Without information and knowledge the blessings of free government cannot be long continued. — Thomas Worthington
Ohio's sixth governor (1814-1818) was an enlightened man.
Worthington's words are etched in glass in a framed display in the crypt of the Statehouse, a back-lit reminder of the importance of the citizenry's right to know.
From the editor: Sunshine Week shows need to shine light on government
Amid so-called alternative facts and a divisive dialogue often consumed with competing claims of truth, public records provide a basis for ferreting out fact and calling out fiction.
“Transparency in government processes and decisions and the public having access to the records related to those decisions is increasingly important," said Monica Nieporte, executive director of the Ohio News Media Association.
"There is so much rumor and disinformation, particularly on cable entertainment talk shows and on social media, that it is important local journalists and citizens have the ability to find the facts and determine the truth of a situation,” she said.
As a one-time newspaper reporter, Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost has a long-time appreciation of sunshine and its role in enabling public oversight of government.
“Secrecy in any relationship destroys trust — friendship, a marriage or a business partnership. Transparency builds trust," Yost said. “More now than ever, we in government need to build trust with those we serve. It starts with openness in public decision-making and the records that document it.”
To mark Sunshine Week, Yost's office on Sunday is releasing the updated 2021 version of the Ohio Sunshine Laws manual or so-called "Yellowbook," a user's guide detailing Ohioans' rights to obtain records and attend meetings.
While it has shortcomings, and public officials too often are fond of hindering record requests when any doubts legally must be resolved in favor of disclosure, Ohio's sunshine laws are more expansive than in many states.
It can be difficult, however, to navigate the complexities of a Public Records Act that began in 1963 with one exception labeled (a) — personal medical records — and now has exemptions lapping the alphabet for a second time to hit (mm).
More than 330 other classes of records are separately labeled off limits and are unavailable to the public.
The playing field between citizens who can't afford to hire lawyers and tax-paid lawyers who represent governmental entities was at least partially leveled in 2016 with creation of a public records complaint program in the Ohio Court of Claims.
For a $25 filing fee, Ohioans can seek a legal review of cases in which government withheld public records, with the process including mandatory mediation before any potential ruling by special master Jeff Clark, who has handled hundreds of reviews.
About 70% of the time, the process leverages loose public records that have been withheld, with nearly half of the cases resolved in mediation. About 30% of complaints are filed against municipalities, with state agencies attracting 18%.
Stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ohio Department of Health has seen at least seven complaints in the Court of Claims over denied records, such as refusing to release names and addresses from its death-certificate database. The state contends the information sought by The Dispatch is protected health information, even though it appears on publicly available death certificates.
"They seem to be rather protective of their data," said Cincinnati lawyer Jack Greiner, a Sunshine Law specialist who represents The Enquirer in seeking records about long-term care deaths, which the state does not list to specific nursing homes and says it does not record.
Too many public offices, Greiner said, are overly protective of their public records when they are merely custodians for the people. "It's almost like they feel this public information is proprietary, a trade secret, when it is not," he said.
The coronavirus pandemic, in one sense, has fostered increased public access to meetings of governmental bodies amid limitations on mass gatherings.
Under a law passed last year, elected officials can meet virtually online, instead of in person, during a public health emergency as long as members of the public can observe to meet the requirement that meetings be open to all.
In-person meetings of public bodies that once perhaps attracted a handful of people to attend now can easily be observed remotely by dozens from their homes.