(Editor’s note: The following column is available for use by ONMA members as an op-ed column. We recommend publishing it during Sunshine Week 2019, March 10-16.)
By Dennis Hetzel, Executive Director
The Ohio News Media Association and our related Ohio Coalition for Open Government frequently receive calls from citizens who need help navigating Ohio’s “sunshine laws” – the laws that ensure government is open, transparent and accountable.
Sunshine Week is a national effort to raise awareness about these important values. That week is March 10-16 this year. With that in mind, I’m sharing the typical advice we give to questions about Ohio’s open meetings and open records laws.
So, what happens if you’re denied? It used to be the only option would likely be a long, expensive court process. You can now appeal the denial of access to a public record for a $25 fee and do everything online. The decision has the force of law and does not require that you have an attorney to succeed. The Ohio Court of Claims operates the site, which you can find at this Web link: https://ohiocourtofclaims.gov/public-records.php
This Court of Claims process is working great, but it can’t be used for open meetings violations or to get court records. We’ll be working with the Legislature and the courts to try to change that.
Do you need more free resources? Type the words “Ohio Attorney General Sunshine Law Manual” into Google, and you’ll find the “bible” that Ohio officials should follow. It’s filled with clear detail on Ohio’s open records and open meetings laws: http://www.ohioattorneygeneral.gov/yellowbook.
The Ohio ACLU also has an excellent guide to using the Ohio open records and open meetings laws: http://www.acluohio.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/PublicRecordsGuide2016.pdf
While I believe most public officials are well-intentioned, we also hear of situations that involve truly awful behavior. For those who have the resources to fight government head-on, we can provide a list of experienced lawyers from across Ohio who know how to litigate these cases.
Our goal is to make those battles less necessary. Informed citizens can go a long way toward ensuring that Ohio has the open, accessible government we want and need.
Dennis Hetzel is the outgoing executive director of the Ohio News Media Association and president of the Ohio Coalition for Open Government. For more information on OCOG or to donate in support of OCOG’s work, go to OhioOpenGov.com.