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Published: Thursday, 7/12/2012 - Updated: 2 years ago

Blade aims to guard 'Sunshine Law'

Newspaper owns successful record in battling public access violations

BY JENNIFER FEEHAN
BLADE STAFF WRITER

The Blade has a long history of challenging violations of Ohio's "Sunshine Law" that ensures public access to government meetings and records.

In May, the newspaper filed a suit in Lucas County Common Pleas Court against the Economic Opportunity Planning Association of Greater Toledo after board members entered into an illegal, closed-door executive session to discuss the agency's Head Start grant application. A week later, the agency agreed to pay The Blade's court costs and attorney fees to comply with the open-meetings law, and to provide notice of the agreement to all board members.

Not all challenges have been settled so expeditiously, but most have been successful.

In 2010, the newspaper challenged a gag order imposed in Henry County Common Pleas Court that would have prevented the media from reporting on a local manslaughter trial until a jury was seated in a subsequent co-defendant's trial. The Ohio Supreme Court unanimously agreed with The Blade that the gag order was unconstitutional, and that a judge cannot place the right to a fair trial above the right to free speech and press.

More than four years before Seneca County commissioners demolished the county's historic 1884 courthouse, The Blade filed a lawsuit in September, 2007, with the Ohio Supreme Court claiming the board intentionally withheld or destroyed public records. The newspaper sought access to all emails concerning the proposed demolition of the courthouse.

The case led to a ground-breaking decision in December, 2008, in which the high court found that a deleted email doesn't cease to be a public record if it still can be retrieved from a computer's hard drive. The court ordered county commissioners to make reasonable efforts to retrieve deleted emails.

In 2006, The Blade joined the (Cleveland) Plain Dealer in asking a U.S. District Court judge to unseal affidavits from the searches of a Toledo travel agency and the home of Toledoan charged in a suspected terrorist plot. Judge James Carr ordered the documents unsealed but allowed words, phrases, and paragraphs that contained information sensitive to the government's ongoing investigation to be redacted.

The state's highest court issued a 5-2 decision in 2005 granting The Blade's request to have the Ohio Bureau of Workers' Compensation turn over all transaction records from the $50 million rare-coin investments that Tom Noe controlled. The court rejected the state's argument that the records were trade secrets that were exempt from the public-records law.

Several times, the newspaper took former Toledo Mayor Carty Finkbeiner to court over public-records violations.

In 1995, the company sued the city for withholding the mayor's long-distance telephone records -- a dispute that never was fully resolved. Lucas County Common Pleas Judge Frederick McDonald dismissed the case in May, 1997, though the records never were released.

In January, 1997, The Blade sued Mayor Finkbeiner after he refused to provide a copy of a letter he said he had received from President Clinton concerning Toledo's keep-Jeep campaign. In a Common Pleas Court ruling, Judge William Skow ordered the mayor to release the letter. He said Mr. Finkbeiner violated the Ohio Public Records Act.

Several cases have involved the University of Toledo.

In 1988, the newspaper charged in Lucas County Common Pleas Court that UT violated Ohio law when it formed a committee to search for a new president and banned a Blade reporter from the meeting that formed that committee. Judge Melvin Resnick ordered the university to reappoint a presidential search committee in a public meeting.

In 1991, The Blade asked the Ohio Supreme Court to order the UT Foundation to release records involving the funding of the organization. In December, 1992, the court voted 6-1 in favor of The Blade.

In 1996, the The Blade charged in Lucas County Common Pleas Court that UT violated the state's Open Meetings Law when it refused public access to meetings held by its athletic director search committee. In ruling for The Blade, Judge Robert Christiansen found that the search committee is both a public and decision-making body and subject to Ohio's Sunshine Law.

The newspaper has not won every battle over public records.

In 2008, the Blade unsuccessfully sought the release of an investigatory report that preceded the firing of James Hartung, former president of the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority. The Ohio Supreme Court ruled in 2009 that the report, which was prepared by a private law firm hired by the port authority, was protected by attorney-client privilege and was not a public record.



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