This is Sunshine Week, an annual opportunity for newspapers in Ohio and across the country to celebrate the First Amendment, and to warn of threats to laws that promote freedom of information and accountable, transparent government. This isn’t special pleading, because “sunshine” laws protect citizens and taxpayers as much as, or more than, they support the work of news media.
The Ohio law that defines public access to public records was once a national model. Today, though, the law exempts nearly 30 types of government records from disclosure. Already in this session of the General Assembly, sunlight-averse lawmakers are proposing measures that would impose new secrecy on some records compiled by schools, and that could allow county recorders to charge unreasonably high fees to process records requests and produce public documents.
Rulings by the Ohio Supreme Court in recent years have restricted access to public records as well. The high court, for example, has authorized the Ohio governor to invoke executive privilege to shield some official records.
The court also has enabled nonprofit agencies to define themselves as private for the purpose of keeping records confidential, even though they collect taxpayer money and perform government functions. Both of these decisions have compromised public accountability (to its credit, the Supreme Court has slapped down public officials who tried to prevent the disclosure of electronic records by deleting them).
Today, a similar debate over access to public information affects JobsOhio, the essentially private economic development authority created by Gov. John Kasich that is funded by public money.
Elsewhere in Ohio, too many charter schools insist that they are public schools when they accept public money, but not when they are called to account for how that money is spent. Too many files of criminal investigations remain secret even after a case is adjudicated and effectively closed.
Locally, The Blade continues to tussle with Mayor Mike Bell’s administration and the Toledo Police Department over their refusal to make public a map of gang activity that clearly seems a public record. The Toledo Board of Education recently has offered some creative interpretations of what it believes it can properly do during secret meetings called executive sessions.
Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine told The Blade’s editorial board that some public officials, especially in smaller units of local government, don’t understand their duties under the open-records law. That’s why, he said, the attorney general’s office conducts regular seminars across the state on the law.
His office also has created a useful process to mediate open-records disputes without forcing the parties to go to court. But the program cannot require mediation, affects only local governments — not state agencies or universities — and lacks a strong appeals mechanism.
In some cases, Mr. DeWine said, federal privacy law supersedes the state’s open-records law, especially on higher-education issues. And in other cases, he conceded, officials can’t be bothered to obey the law unless and until they are forced to do so.
But public records are just that — public. They belong to citizens, not to the politicians and bureaucrats who are the records’ current custodians. The open-records law enables Ohioans to keep an eye on state and local government officials, and to determine how well or badly they are performing their duties and spending tax dollars.
Sunshine Week offers a reminder that you have a right to know what government is doing in your name. That right works best when you exercise it.