From The Columbus Dispatch Some people not prone to hyperbole are praising the General Assembly’s unanimous -- and long-needed -- passage of a bill leveling the public-records playing field between government and citizens.
Senate Bill 321 authored by Senate President Keith Faber, R-Celina, gives Ohioans a low-cost method to potentially leverage loose improperly withheld records without the generally prohibitive cost of hiring a lawyer and filing a lawsuit.
For the mere cost of a $25 filing fee, an Ohioan who believes a governmental entity is illegally withholding public records can file a complaint with the Ohio Court of Claims. The case will go to mediation to see if it can be quickly resolved and, if not, a judge will issue a binding ruling.
“It’s big,” said Dennis Hetzel, president of the Ohio Coalition for Open Government and executive director of the Ohio Newspaper Association.
“Right now, many citizens and organizations give up because they can’t afford the time and cost of litigation” to pry public records away from governmental entities with tax-paid lawyers. “In 90 to 95 percent of the disputes, the law is pretty settled, so this should expedite getting records."
Mark Weaver, a Columbus lawyer and Sunshine law expert, took to Twitter to proclaim: “This is easily the biggest change to Ohio public records law since I started practicing in this area in 1995.”
The bill also tinkered with the recovery of legal fees by citizens who sue to obtain public records, notably casting aside a Ohio Supreme Court ruling that government can duck the payment of opponents’ legal bills by turning over records after they have been sued, but before a court or judge issues a ruling.
Other changes open new paths to the recovery of legal fees in public-records litigation, but one change makes them more difficult to obtain. An award of attorney fees remains unusual in public-records cases, even when citizens prevail over public officials acting in bad faith.
A separate bill allocated $500,000 to cover the costs of the new duty assigned to the Court of Claims.
As its Sunshine rulings emerge, Ohioans seemingly will have more legal backup to cite in arguing for the upfront release of records. Court of Claims rulings still can be appealed in other courts by the losing side.
The law will take effect 90 days after its signing by Gov. John Kasich.