Beacon Journal editorial: Be open about public records

From The Beacon Journal

The past week marked Sunshine Week, celebrating the public’s right to know. In Columbus, Dave Yost marked the occasion by reviewing the first year of a worthy program to give citizens greater access to public records. The state auditor’s Sunshine Audit initiative provides an avenue to resolve unfulfilled public records requests short of going to court.

What Yost rightly recognizes is that most citizens find filing a lawsuit an insurmountable barrier, the time and expense necessary to pry loose records too great. Ohioans now can file a complaint with the auditor’s office, which then examines the situation and issues a nonbinding determination. The auditor cannot levy a fine, but a determination by his office can provide an incentive to act. The determination can be used as evidence in court, where it is given a presumption of validity.

In the first year of the program, 16 complaints of records not being released were investigated, what Yost accurately termed a “small but significant success.” No doubt, as he suspects, there are more cases out there. As the program becomes better known, more are sure to surface. Of the 16 complaints, government entities were found to be compliant with the law eight times. Five released records after state auditors asked about them, and three were found not to have complied. No lawsuits have been filed.

Unfortunately, the Yost program almost was blocked before it got started. Cliff Rosenberger, the House speaker, and Ryan Smith, the chairman of the Finance Committee, said the initiative was out of bounds. The challenge to the authority of the auditor’s office was itself out of bounds. Checking compliance with public records law had been part of the state auditor’s job for decades.

No further challenges have been made, the auditor proving successful in fighting off the ill-founded threat to the independence of his office and the separation of powers in state government.

Mike DeWine also recognized Sunshine Week. The state attorney general released the 2016 edition of a manual for public records compliance, usually referred to as the Yellow Book. A substantial number of disputes over access to public records, he noted, arise because one of the parties doesn’t understand his or her obligations for either making or filling a public records request.

DeWine’s office also runs a mediation process, a step that must be taken by citizens blocked from access to local government records before contacting the auditor’s office. Complaints about state agencies go directly to the auditor.

The Yost program is a step in the right direction. In too many instances, the state legislature has weakened Ohio’s public records law. JobsOhio, an entire agency, has been exempted, a fight Yost lost. Such actions deprive citizens of information they need to make decisions in a democracy or about actions conducted by government in their name.