Our pages are filled with the rewards of open government. But readers don’t see the fight that often goes into reaping those rewards.
From budget numbers to police reports to legislative action requests to court records, much of the information we bring you comes from public records and open meetings. Here’s a little secret: Journalists aren’t (that) special. You can get (almost) everything we can.
To brush up on our skills during Sunshine Week, our staff took part in “We’re Living in the Matrix,” a training seminar by Dennis Hetzel, president of the Ohio Coalition for Open Government and executive director of the Ohio News Media Association, and Gary Daniels, chief lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio.
Now we’re passing the knowledge on to you.
In “odd and unusual times,” as Hetzel termed them, citizens are mobilized to watchdog government at all levels. Open government is essential to democracy, not just for “nosy reporters” but for everyone — because government is just taking care of your records. You own them.
Let’s start with the basics: Ohio Revised Code sections 121.22 and 149.43 are the holy grails for keeping tabs on what happening, from town hall and school board meetings all the way to the State House. They bring the “sunshine.”
ORC 121.22 is the Open Meetings Act, which lets you watch (not necessarily participate) when most decisions are being made. Public meetings are 1) prearranged times and locations 2) at which a majority of publicly elected or appointed bodies 3) talk about public business. You’re entitled to be there, with certain exceptions: a grand jury, the organized crime investigations commission, certain deliberations of state medical boards, talks about trade secrets, client-attorney protected discussions about a specific lawsuit, discussing the hiring and firing of specific government workers, and more.
There are lots of rules in place to keep government honest, which is the whole point of these laws. For example, a city council member can’t attend a meeting by speakerphone. Last year, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that legislators can’t just use emails and tweets to hold virtual meetings. Votes can’t be held behind closed doors. Back room discussions by officials are limited to a handful of topics deemed sensitive.
ORC 149.43 creates rules for public records — those are anything 1) on a fixed medium that is 2) created, received, or sent under the jurisdiction of a public office and 3) documents the organization, functions, procedures, policies, operations, decisions, or other activities of the office.
Looking for a police account of why they showed up on your street with lights flashing? That’s a public record. Property sales? Death certificates? City bills and invoices? How much does the school system spend on athletics? Fire station call logs? Mug shots of criminal defendants? Copies of civil lawsuits? Birth records? Interoffice memos? Official policies? Local ordinances? These are all public records — and they belong to you.
Again, there are lots of exceptions — more than 30, and growing — that the state legislature and courts have deemed not to fit under the “public” umbrella. Adoption records, trial prep records, certain information gathered by police during investigations, minutes of mediation proceedings, intellectual property records, Social Security numbers, home addresses of police officers, certain (but not all) medical records, data of specific people who apply for financial assistance, certain student information, and so on.
“It’s hard to even keep track” of the list, Hetzel said. Some records exceptions the Ohio Newspaper Association fights, others it endorses, and there are some records questions on which members are split: For example, should police body camera footage be public, or does it pose privacy problems?
Oftentimes reporters (and we’re sure the public too) encounter officials who don’t understand the records law. A lot of our frustration stems from police who have misconceptions about records laws. For example, we frequently see them illegally redact the names of minors who have been charged with crimes; Ohio law allows no such thing. We also see them suppress all investigatory information, although the law is very clear police can only keep very specific investigatory information secret. Many small-town and township clerks believe that drafts are not public records (they are) or that minutes must be approved by vote before they are public (which is false). And we encounter school personnel who believe donations can be received anonymously (they can’t).
As Hetzel points out, these are often misunderstandings and oversights, not malicious attempts to cover up the truth. After all, officials are only required to take three hours of public records and open meeting law training per term.
Keep these tips in mind: Anyone can request records in person, by phone, by letter, or mail. You don’t have to give your name or other ID. You don’t have to say why you want the record or what you’ll do with it. You can’t be charged just to see the record, only for copies, and only at a fixed price for the cost of the material used to reproduce it. Records have to be released promptly (which doesn’t necessarily mean immediately). If a record is denied, you have to be given a specific reason that complies with state law.
If you think government is breaking the laws requiring it to be transparent, check out the Yellow Book, a guide published each year by the Ohio attorney general’s office. The ACLU of Ohio also has a manual. Both are online and free.
There is a new appeals process in place at www.ohiocourtofclaims.gov, where for a $25 fee you can file a complaint and the state will attempt to mediate a non-binding resolution for you.
And if all else fails, hire a lawyer. The courts are the only other recourse in Ohio. As with most justice, it costs money to defend your rights.