Since the passage of Ohio’s first open records law in 1963, our state legislature has gone to great lengths to open the doors of public buildings to the taxpayers who want to take a closer look at the activities and decisions that affect their daily lives. From meeting minutes to official correspondence between elected officials, our records are your records. Unfortunately, a costly and inefficient legal process has effectively shut the door to many Ohioans who wish to dispute when their request for public records is denied.
This month, the Ohio Senate passed landmark legislation to establish a more fair and cost-effective method of resolving public records disputes.
After receiving a public records request, a public office must provide you with the records so long as they are not confidential. Case in point: If you want to find out how much your elected public officials are being paid for their public service, you’re entitled to receive those records. If that public records request is denied for some reason, you have the right to challenge the denial.
However, anyone wishing to challenge the denial of a public records request must currently file a lawsuit called a “mandamus action” with an Ohio court. If you’re not a lawyer, chances are you may not know what a mandamus action is. Even if you do, you may struggle to hire an attorney and afford expensive legal fees for the months or even years it may take to resolve your case. The reality is that very few Ohioans have the resources to compete with the government in a court of law, so the current system tilts the balance away from average Ohioans in favor of the government and its most wealthy and powerful citizens.
The irony of creating barriers to access when the issue being considered is public access was not lost on the members of the Ohio Senate. With the support of Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, Ohio Auditor Dave Yost and the Ohio Newspaper Association, I introduced legislation with an innovative solution to overcome the financial and logistical hurdles that many Ohioans face when their public records requests are denied.
If Senate Bill 321 is signed into law, anyone who believes that their public records request was improperly denied will be able to challenge that denial in the Ohio Court of Claims for only $25 and without hiring a lawyer. And you don’t have to travel to Columbus to file the case because the bill would allow you to file the paperwork at your local county Clerk of Courts. The initial required mediation should help resolve the majority of disputes within 45 days. In my experience as a mediator in my private practice of law, I find that mediation works in the vast majority of cases to avoid unnecessary time and expense. If mediation doesn’t work, the Court of Claims will assign one of its public records law experts to issue a recommendation to the judge on how to resolve the dispute.
As an elected official, I represent every individual in my district to the best of my ability, not just those with the wealth and influence to hold their own in a court of law. By ensuring faster, less expensive access to public records, we can level the playing field for all Ohioans and instill greater confidence in the fairness and transparency of our government entities. We can also save public offices from spending taxpayer dollars on costly, time-consuming disputes.
Reforming our public records dispute process is an essential step in increasing public confidence in their elected officials to act transparently and justly. I’m proud to lead the effort. To learn more about Senate Bill 321, which passed unanimously in the Senate and now awaits consideration in the House, watch an interview with me on youtube.com/OhioSenateGOP or read about the legislation at www.OhioSenate.gov.