Dispatch editorial: Open-records bill is a winner

Editorial from The Columbus Dispatch

An open government is a more honest and efficient government. But Ohioans often face unnecessary delays and obstacles when they ask for records that document what government is up to — either because public officials don’t know open-records laws, misinterpret them or purposely stall to cover up misdeeds.

Unless a citizen has tens of thousands of dollars and years to spend on a court lawsuit, he’s out of luck. Crooked or obstinate government officials know this, and use it to exploit the law.

A new bill proposed by Ohio Senate President Keith Faber would provide a much-needed fix, making it quick, cheap and easy for Ohioans to get a court order to produce denied records. Citizens could still file a lawsuit, but Faber’s bill supplies another option: Ohioans would be able to pay a $25 filing fee and have the case heard by the Ohio Court of Claims.

This court was created to hear claims against state entities, including elected officials, state boards, departments and universities; it typically hears cases involving things such as contract disputes, property damage, employment discrimination, personal injury and medical malpractice. This makes it a great choice as an independent arbiter on public-records denials, since it already hears cases involving alleged government wrongdoing.

Faber expects people would not have to hire a lawyer, and that cases should be decided within 45 days. A court mediator would try to resolve the case and then send his recommendation for review to a judge, who would issue a ruling.

“It’s about keeping government open, accessible and accountable to our citizens,” Faber said. “ Remember, the goal here for most seeking public records is to get the records. It is not to run up expenses and legal fees.”

Faber’s proposal drew immediate support from Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, Ohio Auditor of State Dave Yost and Dennis Hetzel, executive director of the Ohio Newspaper Association. Ohio Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor commended the bill for finding ways “to increase, speed up and make less costly Ohioans’ access to public records.”

If passed, this process likely would replace Yost’s Sunshine Audit, a complaint program he started last year to try to marshal help for Ohioans denied records. Faber’s process also would replace a separate mediation program for local government records that DeWine runs.

“This is a superior process,” Yost said of Faber’s bill.

Hetzel called it “a terrific piece of legislation that is going to open up access and information for all Ohio citizens. These are public records — they are not the government’s records.” He noted that 28 other states have a process in place to appeal public-records denials without having to file a lawsuit.

Faber, who is mulling a run for Yost’s auditor’s job in 2018, said he expects to see action on this before his members head home for summer break in early June.

Since Faber has the power to speed this legislation, he should act with the same alacrity to end theft by overbilling by online charter schools (some of whose owners are major GOP donors at the Statehouse). There is a bill to do this sponsored by Senate Minority Leader Joe Schiavoni, D-Boardman. That bill is a good starting point and, with Faber's help, could be shaped into an effective protection for Ohio taxpayers.