Columnist: Stand up for open government

By Melissa Martin, Gallipolis Daily Tribune

Do you want to be in the know about happenings in your state, county, and city? Do you want to know where and how your taxed dollars are spent? Do you want access to certain public records?

“Citizen access to public records is the law of the land in all U.S. states and territories, and in the District of Columbia,” according to The National Freedom of Information Coalition, a nonpartisan alliance. The National Freedom of Information Coalition protects our right to open government. The mission is to make sure state and local governments and public institutions have laws, policies and procedures to facilitate the public’s access to their records and proceedings. www.nfoic.org/.

Open Government in Ohio

Ohio Sunshine Laws ensure all citizens are granted the right to have broad access to government records and meetings. The Open Government Unit educates the public and government about the intricacies of Ohio’s Sunshine Laws. Each year, in partnership with the Ohio Attorney General, the Auditor of State publishes Ohio Sunshine Laws, An Open Government Resource Manual (2018 publication has 256 pages).

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Citizen asks state claims court to get records from Goshen Township

From The Times Reporter

A citizen has complained to the Ohio Court of Claims that Goshen Township Fiscal Officer Amanda Spies has not supplied public records she requested more than four months ago.

“I feel that I have given Fiscal Officer Spies ample time to fulfill my public records request,” Darissa Lute wrote in her complaint. “She has continued to make excuses and drag her feet on my request.

“This was a simple request, which should have been easily fulfilled in a timely manner. We are now (past) 120 days and I still have not received the records that I requested and paid for.”

Lute asked for lists of payments and receipts, budgets, appropriations and monthly reconciliations. She also sought written records of meetings of the three-member board of township trustees, copies of the fiscal officer’s bond, and the hours of accredited training she had taken. The records requested on June 6 are from years 2016, 2017 and 2018.

Lute, fiscal officer for the village of Port Washington, was among the candidates who opposed Spies for the position of Goshen Township fiscal officer in the 2015 election.

Spies contends she has given Lute the records she requested.

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‘Trade secret’ exemption blocks scrutiny of excess profits reaped from public pensions

From The Fremont News Messenger

The Pew Charitable Trusts have come to a conclusion long held by this column: State public pensions are overpaying investment managers for under-performance. Moreover, Pew concludes most of the billions in fees collected by these pension-funded investment managers are not included in the Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR) required of the funds.

It’s not just Ohio. No state met the targeted return on their alternative investment portfolio over a 10-year measurement. With the benefit of an Ohio Public Records Act request for all five state public pension systems, I’ve been able to piece together the contract terms that are standard in these pension system deals, despite record redactions that claim nearly every important detail in the contract as a “trade secret,” exempt from disclosure.

Thankfully, some of the exact contracts provided by Ohio retirement systems, after heavy redaction by their investment partners, were available to me in full detail, as they were produced during discovery in lawsuits over performance by the investment managers.

To illustrate how wonderful it would be to manage a small portion of each Ohio public pension alternative investment portfolio under the contract terms I have read for existing state agreements, assume I am penniless but connected. If my buddy the governor helped each of the Ohio funds see the wisdom in contracting with me to manage $100 million, I would be instantly rich.

To manage an alternative investment fund for Ohio I only need 1 percent of the total equity stake. Since my $500 million fund comprised solely of state pension money will pay me 2 percent a year for at least 10 years, the $10 million a year I will collect for a decade guarantees me $100 million and easily collateralizes a loan for my necessary $5 million.

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Court official finds in favor of The Dispatch over Powell police in Zach Smith records case

From The Dispatch

Powell police will provide The Dispatch with records of 2015 domestic-violence complaints against former Ohio State assistant football coach Zach Smith after a special master for the Ohio Court of Claims found Tuesday that the records were improperly withheld.

Police Chief Gary Vest said the department doesn’t plan to appeal the findings in the 40-page report.

“We’ll follow the advice of the court and start working through the process,” Vest said, adding that he had yet to meet with the city’s legal counsel.

Special master Jeffrey W. Clark found that the police department failed to comply with Ohio public records law in withholding numerous documents, images and audio and video recordings from The Dispatch.

“We’re pleased to see the court rule in favor of openness by upholding the public records laws,” said Dispatch Editor Alan D. Miller. “And we are eager to see Powell officials turn over the records they should have made public months ago.”

Clark agreed with The Dispatch that while the law allows specific information that identifies uncharged suspects to be redacted, entire records cannot be withheld under that exception.

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Judge: More of Cincinnati City Council's secret texts must be released

From The Cincinnati Enquirer

Secret texts between a majority of Cincinnati City Council were released Friday, but a judge Monday said all texts relevant to those conversations – even if they're just between two members – must be released.

It was a bombshell decision that attorneys representing the city fought against, as did a private attorney for Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld. Never before have such limited conversations among Cincinnati city officials been made public.

"Elected officials, when you get elected to an office, I think some think they work for themselves," said Hamilton County Common Pleas Court Judge Robert Ruehlman. "They work for the people. Although some (of the texts) might be embarrassing, they should be released."

At that, Ruehlman said the limited text conversations should be given to attorney Brian Shrive, who is suing five members of council on behalf of citizen Mark Miller, alleging the members held public meetings via text.

Those members, P.G. Sittenfeld, Chris Seelbach, Greg Landsman, Tamaya Dennard and Wendell Young admitted Friday the group conversations happened and released them to Shrive and the Enquirer. But they did not release any texts between fewer than five members.

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Enquirer receives and publishes Cincinnati city council member’s text messages

From The Cincinnati Enquirer

Five Democratic members of Cincinnati City Council spent the first three months of this year talking about city business via text, discussions that encompassed the former city manager, nixing appointments to boards and what they thought about a possible FC Cincinnati stadium deal.

And at times, they expressed contempt for Mayor John Cranley, a fellow Democrat.

"He just flat out lied," Councilman Wendell Young said in a March 16 text. In the same text, Young referred to Cranley as a "little sucker."

"Cranley could be lying to me," Councilman Chris Seelbach said in a March 12 text. "Would never trust him for a second."

The texts, long rumored to read like a salacious novel, don't come close to that. They're more City Hall confidential, a primer on how things get done behind the scenes. 

Speculation about the texts  – what they say, how many they are – has created a firestorm in City Hall unlike any that political insiders have ever seen.

Throughout the strings of text messages, the council members talked about doing business that the city's charter requires council to do in public. They described themselves as a new "Gang of Five," referring to a majority that dominated council in the 1990s.

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OCOG seeks award nominees, your support as eventful 2019 looms

If you’re reading this you’re likely a supporter of accessibility, transparency and accountability in Ohio government.

It’s the time of year when we ask for your help.

First, we’re looking for nominees for our 2019 “Champion of Open Government Award.” This annual honor goes to an Ohioan who has made a difference in support of open government in the Buckeye State. Past nominees have included students, politicians, journalists and everyday citizens who simply chose to get involved. Their efforts have resulted in meaningful change from the local level all the way to Ohio Supreme Court decisions on open records and public meetings that get cited nationally.

If you know of someone who might be deserving, just send a brief nominating statement with your reasoning and contact links if possible to jsanford@ohionews.org.

As always, we welcome new and renewed OCOG memberships. One-time donations also are more than welcome, particularly because the court battles we undertake can cost thousands of dollars. To join or make a year-end, tax-deductible donations, just click here.

Right now, we have two cases pending before the Ohio Supreme Court. One is to stop the practice of secret-ballot voting in public meetings by elected officials. The other would increase police accountability and transparency to stop unwarranted exclusion of body camera footage from release.

Here are some of OCOG’s other efforts during the past 12 months:

  • Released two comprehensive editions of our “Ohio Open Government Report” that also were distributed to all state legislators and executive branch officials.

  • Updated the Ohio Supreme Court database and scorecard on open government cases considered by the state’s highest court. We believe that our activism has helped reverse a trend of anti-open government decisions by the Court.

  • Served as state host for the summit of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, which brought open government advocates from across the nation to Cincinnati

  • Answered dozens of calls and emails from citizens on our legal hotline, providing helpful information in open government battles or referring citizens to qualified attorneys.

  • Conducted a successful fund-raising event in Columbus headlined by J.D. Vance, the author of the best-selling “Hillbilly Elegy.”

OCOG matters more than ever in these times. We thank you for your interest and urge your continued support.

Common Cause Ohio calls for more transparency and improved recusal standards

From Common Cause Ohio

Today, Common Cause Ohio released a studyexamining campaign contributions to the candidates for the Ohio Supreme Court and called for the Ohio Supreme Court to strengthen recusal rules so that judges step away, rather than hear the cases of their campaign contributors.

“The idea that judges should not be able to hear the cases of campaign contributors is such common sense that many people assume it is already the case,” said Catherine Turcer, Common Cause Ohio’s executive director. “Courtroom decision made with a conflict of interest can have a dramatic impact on people’s lives. We need to establish stronger recusal standards so that judges are insulated from the influence of wealthy donors and so that Ohioans can feel confident in the impartiality of judicial decisions.”

Together, the candidates for justice of the Ohio Supreme Court raised nearly $900,000 from January of this year through the month of August.

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Enquirer sues Cincinnati over delayed open records responses

From The Cincinnati Enquirer

The Cincinnati Enquirer on Friday sued the city of Cincinnati in Ohio's Court of Claims for access to public records in seven different cases involving delays or incomplete records.

The disputes involve several different city agencies and include at least one request that has not been filled for nearly 18 months.

In several of the cases, repeated requests were made for the records over the course of several months.

And while declining to fill the requests, the city never cited any exemptions to the records law and never provided updates on the process.

"It’s unfortunate we have been forced to take legal action against the city to obtain public records, but we will always fight for government transparency," Enquirer Executive Editor Beryl Love said. "Other municipalities we cover fulfill these types of requests in a timely manner, so it’s hard to understand why the city of Cincinnati has let these requests drag on for so long."

The Enquirer filed in the claims court under Ohio's relatively new system designed to streamline open records disputes.

The cases now go to immediate mediation as a way to avoid further legal actions.

But The Enquirer still reserves the right to take further legal action if mediation is unsuccessful, Enquirer lawyer Jack Greiner said.

"The Enquirer has been extremely patient with these requests. At this point, we think it appropriate to ask the Court of Claims to intervene,” Greiner said.

A spokesman for the city administration declined to comment, saying officials needed to review the lawsuits.

Untraceable: Why law enforcement knows the number of missing DNA profiles, but you don't

From Lancaster Eagle Gazette

The public may need to know, but they don’t have the right to know.

An investigation into collection lapses revealed Ohio’s DNA databank is missing thousands of profiles, potentially denying or delaying justice in unsolved crimes.

The data detailing the shortcomings in Ohio’s DNA collection for arrested and convicted felons can’t be released to the public, according to Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine’s Office.

Despite the value of holding the biggest offenders of failed DNA collections accountable, the data isn’t being released.

Here’s why.

Understanding who has access and who doesn't

Information requested from the Attorney General’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation — which would outline the number of DNA profiles missing from the databank — would have required the compilation of data in a report that doesn’t already exist. Ohio’s Sunshine Law doesn’t require public offices to create new reports to satisfy a records request.

The data is housed in what’s called the Negative Offender DNA Flag Report, which is an application found in the Ohio Law Enforcement Gateway. BCI maintains the private police database and also Ohio’s Combined DNA Index System or CODIS. The DNA profiles in Ohio’s databank are also then uploaded to the national databank system.

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