This is Sunshine Week, an annual effort by news media and good-government activists to extol the value to all Americans of freedom of information. Laws on public records and open meetings let taxpayers hold government officials at all levels to account, even when — especially when — they would prefer to escape accountability.
Such advocacy is especially important at a time when public officials continue to invent ways to impose secrecy on what should be public business. A recent study ranked Michigan last among the states in the accountability and transparency of its state government, and Ohio didn’t do much better. If citizens don’t demand openness from the people who supposedly represent them, they won’t get it.
The Blade recently used freedom of information law to report on the resignation of the superintendent of Washington Local Schools — a matter the school district preferred not to discuss in detail. The newspaper’s requests have yielded important information about the athletic departments at major public universities in Ohio and Michigan, such as coaches’ contracts and evaluations and student-athletes’ academic performance.
Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act enabled reporters to disclose details of the water crisis in Flint while state officials were still denying the problem. But the law largely exempts the governor’s office and Legislature from disclosure; those loopholes need to be closed.
Freedom of information often remains an elusive concept in Ohio. Toledo taxpayers still don’t know what the city and state offered Fiat Chrysler Automobiles in the incentive package aimed at encouraging the car company to continue building the Jeep Wrangler here. Gov. John Kasich’s administration continues to shroud in excessive secrecy the activities of JobsOhio, the state’s quasi-private economic development program.
Student journalists at 12 of Ohio’s 14 public universities recently asked university employees for records that state law entitles them to receive, such as budget and performance evaluations of top university officials. In nearly half of the 60 requests, though, the schools did not comply.
State officials have tried, with limited success, to help local officials and citizens understand their rights and responsibilities under Ohio freedom of information law. This week, state Attorney General Mike DeWine released his annual manual summarizing the state’s sunshine laws. Mr. DeWine’s office trains local officials on public records and open meetings.
His office also offers to mediate freedom of information disputes involving local government, in an effort to help citizens who seek public records get them more quickly, and to help governments avoid costly lawsuits. But because the four-year-old program is voluntary, it has not gotten the attention or use that it should.
State Auditor General Dave Yost also offers to help resolve public records disputes. In the first year of his effort, his office reviewed 16 complaints; in half of those cases, it determined that the local government or state agency that was the target of the complaint had obeyed the law. The office’s participation helped achieve compliance in five other cases.
Nationally, the Associated Press asked legislative leaders in each state and most governors for their daily schedules and official emails. Ohio law defines such communications as public records, and state lawmakers, the governor, and other state agencies are generally required to release them. But across the country, the news service said, lawmakers denied the requests more often than they complied, claiming they were legally exempt.
Regrettably, President Obama too often has proved not to be a fan of — or friend of — federal sunshine law. The Vice news service reported this month that the White House and Justice Department worked to help kill a bill that would have accelerated compliance with Freedom of Information Act requests for public records. VICE got its scoop through, yes, a FOIA request.
This November, citizens will elect officials — federal, state, and local — who will define public access to public information. Voters should start educating themselves now about which candidates would govern in the sunshine, or in the shadows.
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