Ohio Senate OKs arson registry bill; offender list would not be public


COLUMBUS — A bill mandating creation of a state registry of arson offenders soon will be on the way to the governor’s desk, but the compilation of otherwise public records will not itself be public.

The state Senate on Wednesday gave final approval to the bill after a six-member joint conference committee stripped it of language requiring the registry be considered a public record accessible to the press and general public.

“There are a lot of researchers and other individuals who would find use of this information beneficial,” said Sen. Mike Skindell (D., Lakewood). “We are government, and … it is presumed that the records created by government are public unless there is a compelling interest not to [make it public].”

By a vote of 4-2, the conference committee sided with the Senate with Republicans opting to keep the compiled information private.

“The original concept of this was to be a law enforcement tool … ” said Steve Raubenolt, deputy superintendent of the attorney general’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation and Identification. “It was never discussed that it would be a public record or a public registry. We’ve only got one public registry involving BCI records…, and that involves sex offenders. That registry was developed specifically to notify the public.”

He said the bureau was concerned about the administrative task of having to comply with public record requests for information from the registry.

Sen. Tim Schaffer (R., Lancaster), sponsor of Senate Bill 70, said he was open to discussing the issue further next year but didn’t want the dispute to derail the bill now so close to the end of the current two-year session. Lawmakers are expected to bring the session to a close today. “I don’t want to throw any administrative logjams in the road,” he said.

Despite Senate Democrats’ opposition to removal of the public records requirement, they supported the bill and it passed the upper chamber unanimously. The House is expected to ratify the change today.

Mr. Skindell noted that making the registry public would not compel the attorney general’s office to make it available to the public via a computer search engine such as the sex offender registry. He also said the attorney general could charge fees per page to comply with public records requests for the information.

Dennis Hetzel, executive director of the Ohio Newspaper Association, said after the vote that most of the information collected for the registry is already a public record on a piecemeal basis.

“Those precedents are always troubling because it’s death by a thousand cuts with public records,” he said. “There’s always a good reason why this specific thing shouldn’t be public, but the aggregate of all of those arguments is that we’re keeping more and more things secret or we’re making it more difficult.”

Contact Jim Provance at: jprovance@theblade.com or 614-221-0496.