In the face of political criticism during a tough election year and despite near-condemnation from a First Amendment expert, Mayor Mike Bell dug in his heels Thursday and refused to release a police department gang-turf map.
In a 2-1 decision dated Friday, the 6th District Court of Appeals in Toledo had concluded the gang map is not exempt from disclosure under Ohio public-records law and ordered the city to turn it over to The Blade within 10 days.
But city spokesman Jen Sorgenfrei said city lawyers were preparing to file an appeal to the Ohio Supreme Court. Law Director Adam Loukx, who was not available for comment, would handle the case, Ms. Sorgenfrei said.
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Ken Paulson, president of the First Amendment Center and dean of the College of Mass Communication at Middle Tennessee State University, lauded The Blade for fighting the Bell administration for the document.
“It’s critically important to remember that public safety agencies work for the public and public records laws serve many positive functions, including giving taxpayers a real understanding of where public servants are doing their jobs well,” he said. “In virtually every state in America, there are laws that exempt investigative records from public scrutiny, but it's not supposed to be a one-size-fits-all exemption.”
After reviewing the court’s opinion, Mr. Paulson said he considered the newspaper to be in the right.
“The rules are clear in most public-records cases,” he said. “If the release of public information would endanger a specific criminal investigation, it can remain secret. In this case, it is one of general interest and not about single defendant or single crime.”
Under Ohio public-records law, confidential law-enforcement investigatory records are exempt from disclosure. But in this case the appeals court held that the gang map did not reveal any protected investigatory technique or procedure, and it was not created as work product for a pending or highly probable criminal prosecution.
Toledo City councilmen Joe McNamara and D. Michael Collins, and Lucas County Auditor Anita Lopez — the main candidates challenging Mr. Bell for his office this year — each praised the appellate court’s decision and used it to paint the mayor as nontransparent with the public.
Council President Paula Hicks-Hudson, who is not up for re-election this year, said the issue could play a small role in the mayor's race.
“I don’t want to diminish the need for journalists to have information,” she said. “Most of the electorate will be interested in how the city is moving forward in terms of jobs and the economy.”
Ms. Hicks-Hudson also questioned if Mayor Bell acted properly in withholding the map.
Toledo Municipal Court Judge Michael R. Goulding said government has to reach a high standard to withhold records.
“From what I know of these kinds of cases, to block press access to many kinds of records requires the government to jump a pretty high bar,” Judge Goulding said. “Often times, if there is a direct threat of someone's safety, someone’s health, records will be redacted or withheld from the press."
Judge Goulding declined to speak about the appellate court’s ruling because judges are not permitted to talk about pending cases, and the case is considered pending because of the city’s likely appeal.
Municipal Court Judge William M. Connelly, Jr., declined to discuss the case but expounded on the value of Ohio's public-records laws.
“Generally, you can say the value of the Sunshine Law is not easy to measure,” Judge Connelly said. “Government cannot be held accountable without a free press and that is why we have the Sunshine Law. Government left to its own devices would want to keep secrets where secrets are not necessary.”
Contact Ignazio Messina at email@example.com or 419-724-6171.