Editorial: Ohio public-records mediation a smart move for state and its citizens

Editorial from The Plain Dealer The Ohio legislature deserves a thumbs-up for giving citizens a way to dig into public records without forcing them to dig deep into their pockets.

Under Substitute Senate Bill 321, which passed in June and goes into effect Sept. 28, citizens denied public records by a government entity in Ohio will be able to opt for a $25 mediation process through the Ohio Court of Claims instead of having to file a lawsuit and thereby forcing the government to defend itself in court. Mediation should ensure that more Ohioans are able to take advantage of the state's open records law, which is the hallmark of good, transparent government.

Currently, citizens denied public records have only one legal remedy: a mandamus action, or a writ, through the courts forcing the government to turn the public records over.

But litigation can be a sky-high barrier for many record-seeking citizens who lack the money to hire a lawyer.  Soon, rejected citizens will be able to pay $25 to file a complaint in their county clerk's office for the Ohio Court of Claims, which will then attempt to mediate the problem.

If mediation fails, a special master steps in and gives the Court of Claims judge an advisory opinion. The judge can then issue a legally binding decision. That ruling is appealable, but the idea is that most of these disputes will be resolved efficiently within weeks, not months, by an independent, third party.

About 28 states already offer mediation as a way to resolve public-records disputes, said Dennis Hetzel, executive director of the Ohio Newspaper Association.

Hetzel supports the new Ohio law, as does state Auditor Dave Yost and Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine. Yost and DeWine said they will likely dismantle their programs to mediate public-records disputes.

Ideally, there should be no need for mediation or lawsuits. Ohio Revised Code 149.43 has a right-thinking view of how public records should be handled: Public records (with some reasonable exceptions, such as personal information about law-enforcement personnel) should be "promptly prepared and made available for inspection ( or copying) to any person at all reasonable times during regular business hours." And the requester need not even give her or his name.

Despite the clarity of Ohio law, it is not unusual for some cities and villages to thumb their noses at it and refuse to turn over consultant contracts, mayor's schedules, public officials' garage-door logs and other documents on the flimsiest excuses.

If public-records mediation works as it should, it will give many citizens an opportunity to pry those records free without costly dramas. That's how it should be.