In a more perfect world, politics and the justice system would be kept separate and pristine, just the way we are taught they should be.
But in the real world, the courts “follow the election returns,” and judges are more often old politicians than constitutional scholars. That doesn’t mean their judgment can’t be sound or that politics cannot be honorable, only that we should have clear eyes when we read what judges say.
And what mayors say. Mayor Mike Bell has said, from his first day in office and almost weekly since then, that he is a not a politician. But Mayor Bell is a politician — a very savvy one.
A state appeals court has ruled that Mayor Bell’s administration must give The Blade a copy of the Police Department’s gang map of Toledo because the map is a public document covered by Ohio’s open-records law.
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The Blade has spent a year trying to obtain this map — on principle. The public is entitled to public records. The city has spent a year and requisite public resources trying to prevent this. The court decision ought to be the end of this controversy. But it isn’t. The mayor plans to appeal the ruling to the Ohio Supreme Court.
Rationally and legally, this makes no sense. But politically it makes sense for the mayor to roll the dice. The Supreme Court of Ohio is composed of six Republicans out of seven jurists — no friends of freedom of information.
The mayor, who says he is above politics, is making a political calculation.
Is there a legal basis to that calculation as well?
If so it would derive from Judge Stephen Yarbrough’s dissent. He said the court “should not … be substituting our sense of what the map reveals, or doesn’t reveal, or its usefulness, for that of a trained police investigator.”
But the two-judge majority wasn’t doing that. The majority was simply saying the map is a public record and Ohio’s Public Records Act requires that it be released unless said release would create a “high probability of disclosure of specific confidential investigatory techniques or procedures,” which it plainly does not.
If Judge Yarbrough’s interpretation of the law prevailed, the public would have access only to the police records the police were willing to release.
That’s a political stance. Again, politics, not law, is the driver.
The public has a right to know that Yarbrough has a potential conflict of interest here. The Blade did not support his election and in the past criticized his representation of his legal residence.
State Supreme Court justices definitely follow the election returns. They are elected officials. The justices are acutely aware that next year is an election year and this consideration will surely cross their minds as they consider this case and when to hear it.
Finally, let’s talk about the public record in question here.
Judge Yarbrough’s dissent partially describes the city’s map as “three boxes ... marked in five colors to reflect four gangs and one unaffiliated group.” That hardly sounds like the inside intelligence of police investigators. It sounds like elementary knowledge — much less detailed than the information provided by The Blade in its own map and gang series.
Could this really be it? Could this be the sum of the city’s gang map after all this brouhaha?
Is it possible that the mayor is so intent upon shielding this map because of what is not in it?
That’s definitely politics.
The mayor must accept that there is a potential political price for his choices. Mr. Bell came to office promising transparency but has proven at every opportunity that he prefers secret government. In addition to his fetish of secrecy, they'd be getting a man who has shown he is extraordinarily stubborn, and not nearly as affable, as the man they thought they were voting for in 2009. Voters should be aware that a re-elected, term-limited Mike Bell will likely not share anything of importance for the next four years.
Keith C. Burris is associate editor of The Blade.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6266.