Ohio bill adds mediation option for public record disputes

From The Plain Dealer New legislation in the Ohio Senate aims to speed up and reduce the costs of public records disputes.

Senate President Keith Faber is proposing a court mediation process as an alternative to filing a lawsuit, if a public records request is denied or delayed. Lawsuits require attorneys, which aren't available to many citizens and cost taxpayers money on the government's end.

What's the problem?

Ohio's Public Records Act defines a "public record" as any record "kept by any public office, including, but not limited to, state, county, city, village, township, and school district units." If the record doesn't fall under one of several exemptions, the public office must make the record available for inspection or copying.

If the office refuses to release the records, a mandamus action, often through the Ohio Supreme Court, is the way to force officials to release records. Many people drop their request because they can't afford to hire lawyers. And if complaints go to court, they can take more than a year to be resolved, while taxpayers foot the bill defending the public office.

How would the bill work?

  1. If a request for public records is denied or delayed, the requester can file a complaint in their county clerk's office for the Ohio Court of Claims. The fee to file would be $25.
  2. The government entity would have seven days to respond.
  3. The Court of Claims would attempt to mediate the problem between the two parties, and could do so by phone from Columbus.
  4. If the mediation fails, a special master would render advisory opinion that would then be considered by a Court of Claims judge, who would issue a legally binding decision.
  5. Either party can appeal, but the appeal would also be handled into expedited manner.

Faber said at a Wednesday press conference that most complaints would likely be resolved through mediation. The bill's time line calls for a legally binding decision within 45 days.

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