Ohio State claims no records in Mandel-Meyer ad campaign

From The Columbus Dispatch

A $2 million, taxpayer-funded ad campaign last year by Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel has already been criticized for a lack of transparency. Now Ohio State University says it, too, has no documents related to the commercials, co-starring head football coach Urban Meyer and filmed in the Buckeyes’ practice facility.

Mandel, a Republican, already has said there was no written communication among him and his senior staff about the cost of and payments for the commercials, the methodology of which earned a rebuke this year from the Republican-controlled legislature.

The commercials promoted the STABLE program, which allows families to set up tax-free accounts for disabled children.

They aired just before Mandel announced another run against Democratic U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown. That prompted watchdogs to say they appeared to be taxpayer-funded campaign commercials featuring Mandel alongside Meyer, the state’s highest-paid public employee and arguably the most popular individual in Ohio.

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County must turn over girl’s autopsy records to father who killed her

From Court News Ohio

The Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner’s Office must turn over the autopsy records of an infant to her father, who is serving 15 years to life for the murder of the child, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled today.

A divided Supreme Court determined that a provision of Ohio public records law that requires
incarcerated persons, who request public records, to comply with certain requirements before being granted access to those records does not apply to the request of a deceased’s person’s next of kin to the coroner for records of the deceased person.

Justice Sharon L. Kennedy, the author of the Court’s lead opinion, wrote that the plain language of the statuteregarding coroner’s records is clear that the next of kin is entitled to the records. She concluded that if the legislature had intended to prevent the father from getting the records, then the General Assembly has the right to take note of today’s decision and amend the law.

Justice Kennedy’s decision granting Michael Clay the records was joined by Justices Terrence O’Donnell and R. Patrick DeWine.

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Bill seeks balance on release of police body-cam videos

From The Columbus Dispatch

Legislation spelling out when police body-camera videos will be released to the public — or not — strikes a balance between privacy and transparency, advocates say.

The bill unveiled on Monday by sponsoring state Reps. Niraj Antani, R-Miamisburg, and Hearcel Craig, D-Columbus, would declare that videos from body-worn cameras are public records that must be provided to Ohioans on request.

The bill makes clear that the public has a right to the release of videos in which police officers kill or seriously injure suspects in all circumstances, regardless of whether it’s a private home or on the street.

However, the legislation contains several exemptions when the videos captured by police would not be released, such as videos shot within businesses and private homes and those that show a victim of a sex crime or domestic violence and dead, seriously injured or naked subjects.

Advocates view police body cameras as increasing officer accountability for their actions while also potentially protecting officers against unfounded allegations of abuse and misconduct.

“It’s the Wild West right now,” with law enforcement agencies differing in their approaches to release of video from body-worn cameras, Antani said. “It was very important to protect privacy interests” by introducing a bill to control video release statewide, he said.

Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther joined the Statehouse news conference to describe the city’s commitment to police body cameras as “increasing accountability and transparency on both sides of the camera.” He supports the bill for its common-sense approach.

Columbus, which so far has rolled out cameras to 501 police officers, is spending $9.1 million to equip a total of 1,300 officers with the $735 body cameras by the end of 2018, said Cathy Collins, an assistant public safety director. Computer storage of archived digital video accounts for nearly $4.2 million of the spending.

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Ohio U. 'Freedom of Expression' advisory group is almost parody of itself

From The Athens News

The volunteer members of the work group on Ohio University’s “Freedom of Expression” policy voting unanimously to keep the group’s meetings closed to the public says a lot about higher education in general. The irony is clear.

It’s also not surprising, however, knowing OU’s track record on transparency with regard to public meetings and public documents in the last three-plus years that I have covered the institution.

The interim “Freedom of Expression” policy at OU, in case you’ve been living under a rock the last few months, bans protests and other demonstrations inside university buildings. That policy, along with another interim policy about “Use of Outdoor Space,” has drawn much ire from the university community, has been condemned by all of its major constituent senates, and even has been called “unconstitutional” by the ACLU of Ohio.

Given all of that negative attention, I do understand the context behind why the members of the “president’s policy advisory group” wouldn’t want to let people in on their discussions. The group was formed by OU President Duane Nellis to go through what likely are mountains of feedback provided to the university on the interim policies, and then provide a recommendation on how OU should move forward with a new policy.

But given the manner in which the policies on “Freedom of Expression” (the name is almost Orwellian, no?) were developed by OU’s legal office – basically in a vacuum with no input from faculty or student constituencies – the burden is on the university, and by extension this policy advisory group, to keep these discussions in the sunlight as much as possible.

The most unsettling thing about the decision to keep the group’s doors closed is that nobody on the committee has particular expertise on the First Amendment. As OU journalism professor Bernhard Debatin pointed out during Faculty Senate’s meeting last week, the group’s composition is “lopsided” in that it has very few student and faculty representatives (two students and two faculty) for a policy that largely affects just those groups. In total, the group includes the university police chief; its senior director of communications; the director of Baker University Center; a legal affairs representative; the chairs of its Student and Graduate student senates; the chairs of the Administrative and Classified senates; dean of the Scripps College of Communication; one Faculty Senate designee; and the chair of the OU Department of History.

The group’s unanimous vote to keep the meetings closed (while providing media availability and meeting minutes after said meetings) came after discussion about “transparency” being the group’s core value, Scripps College of Communication Dean Scott Titsworth said in a letter last week.

“In addition to transparency, the group adopted values that all voices should be heard and to show respect for others,” Titsworth wrote. “With unanimous consensus, the group decided meetings should continue to be held in private in order to accomplish the work at hand in an efficient manner and meet the expected delivery deadline for recommendations.”

Former Athens resident and OU student Jon Peters expressed extreme disappointment in his alma mater when he heard that bit from Titsworth last week. Before leaving Athens, Peters wrote a column for The A-NEWS, and is currently assistant professor with the Grady College of Journalism and affiliated assistant professor in the School of Law at the University of Georgia.

Peters said while the jury is out on whether or not the group will be forced by Ohio’s public meetings law to meet openly, the group should have chosen to meet in public regardless.

“It has chosen not to do so, for reasons so absurd that they should be written in crayon,” Peters wrote in a comment. “The group acknowledged the importance of transparency, then decided to meet secretly. And no less than the Scripps College of Communication dean, the group's convener, said efficiency justified the secrecy. First, a process involving public participation will almost always be less efficient than a process not involving public participation. Second, that's a reasonable price for a public university to pay to be respectful of its community members and to encourage public input and confidence in the group's work – and to be accountable for it.”

When I asked Titsworth how the meetings would become more efficient by closing the doors to the public, he responded in an email: “Our primary tasks require the group to quickly establish a culture for open dialogue where ideas are tested, counter-viewpoints expressed, opinions challenged, and sense-making narratives explored,” he said. “Ultimately, we will create work products to be widely distributed and available for public scrutiny. Because the group members have not worked together in this capacity previously, it is our belief, through consensus, that we can best establish such a group culture through private discussions.”

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State’s narrow view of time shields public records

From The Columbus Dispatch

Journalists usually get results when they respond quickly to a major story.

But not always — especially when state government is involved.

When state Sen. Cliff Hite resigned last month after admitting sexual harassment of a female legislative aide, Dispatch legislative reporter Jim Siegel and a handful of others who cover the Statehouse immediately asked for public records on the case.

But the key memo detailing the aide’s account of repeated unwanted encounters with the Findlay Republican went not to those who asked first, but to news organizations that filed requests the following day or later.

How did that happen?

The first requests from The Dispatch and others came on Oct. 18. It was acknowledged on Oct. 19 by Mark Flanders, head of the Ohio Legislative Service Commission: “We have begun examining our records for those responsive to the request.”

>> Join the conversation at Facebook.com/dispatchpolitics and connect with us on Twitter @OhioPoliticsNow

Turns out that the detailed memo also was dated Oct. 19. However, The Dispatch didn’t get it because Flanders limited his search to records on hand as of the date of the request — despite not beginning that search until the day the memo was prepared.

But because other requests were dated Oct. 19 or later, they got the memo because Flanders’ search period started on the day those requests were received — which was the day the memo was prepared or afterward.

Media organizations have had similar upside-down experiences with other state offices, as state lawyers say that a request for public records cannot be ongoing. We journalists almost might concede that such a practice might meet legal technicalities, but the spirit of transparency built into Ohio’s open-government laws is being violated. So is the long-forgotten concept of government workers being “public servants.”

Would you be satisfied if, on Thursday, you sent someone who worked for you to get an important document you had paid for, and the employee obtained the document on Friday — but said, sorry boss, you aren’t getting it because it wasn’t available when you asked on Thursday?

The practice is causing some journalists to make daily public records requests to make sure that public officials aren’t using this dodge to deny public records to the public.

Commissioners' mistake with public notice causes judge to request meeting transcript

From The Athens News

An Athens County Common Pleas judge has filed an order for a transcript of the 2016 meeting of the county Board of Commissioners during which they approved a road waiver for a coal-mining company that they then rescinded this past September because of a mistake on a public notice.

The Coshocton-based coal company subsequently filed a court appeal of the county Commissioners’ decision to rescind the road waiver for the company’s mining project near Glouster in northern Athens County.

The Commissioners originally granted the right-of-way waiver to Oxford Coal Co. for work within 100 feet of County Road 68 as it relates to the coal-mining project last year. Oxford currently has a permit for the mine pending before the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. The Ohio EPA recently approved a water-quality permit for the proposed mine.

The proposed permit area for the project is about 300 acres, located off Johnson Run Road not far from the Trimble State Wildlife Area. Oxford’s proposal calls for a five-year mining plan.

Critics of the proposed mine attended multiple Athens County Commission meetings over the past several months, encouraging them to rescind the waiver and to oppose the project.

In August, the Commissioners asked Oxford to voluntarily go through the public-hearing process again for the waiver after a mistake was found on its public notice for the hearing that already had been held.

The problem with the first public notice was that it did not specifically define what impact the operation would have on the road and its right-of-way. Plans submitted by the company do show those details, but the public notice failed to include them.

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Crestwood won’t release football investigation records

From The Record-Courier

Crestwood school officials blocked the release of records Monday that may shed light on why the Red Devils football team was abruptly suspended just before its Sept. 29 game. 

The district formally rejected the Record-Courier’s Oct. 12 request for public records pertaining to a now closed internal investigation of the football team, claiming any records are not releasable under federal law. Public records experts interviewed Monday disagree with Crestwood’s legal interpretation. 

The district did release redacted personnel files for eight football coaches as requested. Those documents did not shed any light on what prompted an eventual 2-game suspension. Nor were there any disciplinary notices, which was part of the request. 

In a letter from Treasurer Jill Rowe, the district denied “in its entirety” the release of any additional records. 

“Specifically, the request is denied as it seeks confidential investigative records and the disclosure of information provided by Board employees to whom confidentiality was reasonably promised,” Rowe wrote. ”... In addition, the request is denied because it seeks personally identifiable information regarding students attending public schools.” 

Mantua police are currently looking into what happened for a second time after Portage County Prosecutor Victor Vigluicci asked for additional information before he decides if criminal charges are warranted. Mantua Police Chief Harry Buchert has not returned calls from the Record-Courier since Vigluicci sent the case back to his department last week. 

The Record-Courier disagrees with Crestwood’s decision, General Manager and Editor Michael Shearer said. 

“We believe Crestwood is clearly wrong in its interpretation of the law, nor is it a police agency with confidential investigatory records,” he said. “We specifically noted in our request that we did not seek any identifiable student information and understood documents would likely need to redacted in part.” 

Attorney David Marburger, an expert in public records law, said Crestwood appears to be improperly relying on a law governing confidential law enforcement records, which allows police agencies to keep information confidential during an ongoing investigation. 

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Blade uses public records to show concerns around high costs of Maumee court audit

From The Blade

A Maumee Municipal Court audit launched in response to suspected theft by an employee will cost nearly five times more than the city's separate audit already in progress.

The Blade, through a public records request, obtained a letter of engagement between the court and the Maumee-based accounting firm Gilmore Jasion Mahler. The five-page letter outlines services to be performed at a rate of $245 per hour.

The letter is dated Oct. 19 and was signed Oct. 20 by clerk of court Frank Frey. Former court employee Jane Monroe was indicted on seven felonies Oct. 6. She’s accused of stealing more than $30,000 from her employer. The court was notified by Maumee Police of potential theft in September.

Mayor Richard Carr has been frustrated with several elements of the court's response.

"They were told about the theft in their court on Sept. 21," Mayor Carr said. "They knew nothing about it for 41 days, and then it takes them another month to even enter into an agreement to have an audit done to find out how the money was stolen."

The first page of the letter states the report "will contain a statement that is intended solely for the use of the court." Mayor Carr has stated from the beginning he wanted the court to use the Ohio State Auditor's office to ensure transparency and guarantee city officials could see the findings.

Mayor Carr said the court has not been willing to share information in the past, such as redacting specific services on bills council is essentially forced to pay.

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Plain Dealer and Advance Ohio are backing out of the Greater Cleveland Partnership over lack of transparency

From Cleveland Scene

Friday, on WCPN’s weekly Reporters’ Roundtable, Cleveland.com editor Chris Quinn announced that the Plain Dealer and Advance Ohio (PD/Cleveland.com parent company) would be renouncing their memberships in the Greater Cleveland Partnership, the local chamber of commerce. 

That decision comes amid local controversy surrounding Cleveland’s bid for Amazon’s second headquarters, details of which have been kept secret. Though the city of Cleveland, Cuyahoga County and 20 other quasi-public and private organizations were involved in the creation of the bid, no one is sharing specifics. Mayor Frank Jackson told Channel 5 that he would release the bid eventually, but GCP is said to be mandating the tight lid on information.

“We at Advance Ohio and the Cleveland Plain Dealer have been a member of that group for a long time,” Quinn said on WCPN. “We’re getting out. We’re not going to be a part of it anymore. We are all about transparency, and don’t want to be part of something that’s not.” 

Responding to a follow-up inquiry, Quinn told Scene that Advance and the PD had been weighing for some time whether or not they would renew their membership in February. In fact, they were “leaning toward” not renewing. 

“We have been questioning the value our organization receives in return for the substantial membership dues we pay, for one,” Quinn wrote in an email. “But GCP's old-fashioned role in keeping the Amazon proposal secret made the decision more urgent.” 

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Good news, bad news on open records legislation

By Dennis Hetzel, OCOG President

Several statutes related to open records are moving through the Ohio Legislature.

Unfortunately, we still cannot get traction on House Bill 8, which would remove the names of minors whose names appear in accident reports involving school buses.  We are particularly concerned about the precedent this could set to undermine the long-standing rule that initial police incident reports, including traffic accidents, are public records.

We have made several reasonable compromise suggestions with no luck. We also are unhappy about confusing, unnecessary language being added to protect the release of individual medical claims information. While no one believes this information should be public, we maintain that existing law covers the concern. The new language is murky and could result in unwanted interpretations.

The bill has passed the House and is headed to the Senate floor, where we will again seek to amend the legislation.  If the bill makes it to the governor’s desk as written, we will request a veto.

Here is the status of some other items we are following:

Mugshot sites: Gov. Kasich signed HB 6 into law, which makes it illegal to charge people for the removal of criminal or arrest records – something our members wouldn’t do. The bill is aimed at the websites that charge hundreds of dollars to remove booking photographs of arrests. ONMA worked with the sponsor, Rep. John Barnes, to craft acceptable language.

Destruction of arrest records: HB 64 is a well-intentioned bill that seeks to help people wrongly arrested by police. However, we opposed the expungement (destruction) of the arrest records as the answer for a number of reasons, particularly because destruction of these records provides no accountability for why the government wrongly accused someone. We have been working with the bill sponsors on a compromise idea that would keep most of the information open.

Campus free speech: Many of you are covering controversial campus speakers and how college officials are dealing with campus free speech issues. HB 363 makes it harder for local officials to block speakers based on the content of their speech, possible security issues and other concerns.  (The bill also makes payment of student activity fees voluntary.)

Ohio Citizen Participation Act: Ohio would have a national model “anti-SLAPP” bill under this legislation that we strongly support. Senate Bill 203 just had its first hearing. ONMA and other supporting groups expect to testify on Nov. 8.  The bill creates an expedited court process to dispose of cases against those who are sued for exercising their free-speech rights under the U.S. and Ohio constitutions.