Why open-government advocates are feeling good about the news from Ohio

From The Columbia Journalism Review Here comes the sun,

Here comes the sun, and I say,

It’s all right.

George Harrison could have written those words about Ohio in recent weeks, as a pair of legal developments have called attention to freedom-of-information issues in the Buckeye State and promise to make state and local government more open.

As one of my friends in the legal world there put it, “Not sure who flipped the switch, but it feels like Sunshine Week … right now.”

First, Ohio Senate President Keith Faber, a Republican, introduced a bill last week empowering citizens to challenge public-record denials without the need for a lawyer by paying $25 for the Ohio Court of Claims to resolve the dispute. One of its judges would do so after a special master mediated the dispute and issued a recommendation. Faber told The Columbus Dispatch that he expects the entire process, from start to finish, would take no more than 45 days. (Alternatively, citizens could still file a traditional lawsuit.)

The program would likely replace others operated by the Ohio Auditor and the Ohio Attorney General. I discussed them a year ago when the auditor, Dave Yost, a Republican and a former reporter for the long-defunct Columbus Citizen-Journal, announced that his office would start taking complaints about public-records violations by state agencies. The Republican-controlled legislature tried unsuccessfully to kill the program, arguing that it wasn’t the auditor’s role to monitor public-records law. Eventually, the legislature blinked and Yost went ahead with his program, called Sunshine Audits.

Meanwhile, the attorney general’s program offers a free mediation service as an alternative to litigation. Its shortcoming, though, is that it accepts only complaints involving local government agencies, because the attorney general’s office acts as legal counsel to state agencies.

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