Public information should be freely available

By Frank Lewis

June 13, 2014

By Frank Lewis


As a news writer/reporter, I can say beyond a shadow of a doubt, most people I interview about a news story are very cooperative. It is rare that I run into a snag. Whether dealing with local law enforcement agencies or federal authorities, almost every time I get complete cooperation and am able to move forward with my story.

There is one issue that comes up once in a while. That issue is when someone in government, either administrative official or law enforcement agency that decides they don’t want to make public information, public. That’s why it would bode well with people who deal with government information and documents to brush up on the Sunshine Laws.

I was just notified by Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine and the Ohio State Bar Foundation (OSBF) that they have released eight videos aimed at helping elected officials, public employees, media representatives, and interested citizens better understand Ohio’s Sunshine Laws, which are Ohio’s Open Records and Open Meetings laws. The Public Records Unit within the Ohio Attorney General’s Office developed the videos, which were funded by a grant from the OSBF.

“Government is most accountable to the people it serves when it operates openly,” Attorney General DeWine said. “We’re pleased to work with the OSBF to make detailed and useful information about Ohio’s Sunshine Laws easily accessible to the citizens of our state.”

Occasionally we run into - “We’re not releasing that information.” It turns out many times that person believes they have a right to make an arbitrary decision about public information and documents. The truth is the laws are right out there and easy to understand. It is very rare that public information can be withheld and the guidelines for doing that are very strict.

The state informed the city of Portsmouth a year or so ago that it needed to develop a Public Records policy and they did. That is because the people who pay the taxes which make the government operate almost always have the right to know what is going on. Withholding information also causes people to wonder why officials, working off taxpayer dollars, don’t want taxpayers to know something.

Another thing I would like to see citizens take to court is the practice of governmental agencies just routinely going into what they have come to broadly call “executive session.” That started out to deal with things like discussing individual employees and a little about legal matters, though in most cases, legal matters are also subject to public information. I believe one person challenging routine executive sessions might change the entire practice once a court would follow the actual laws.

If you deal with the kind of information that routinely goes through government systems you might want to brush up on the laws. The information is available on your computer.

“One of our foundation’s priorities is to improve public understanding of the rule of law,” Stephen F. Tilson, President of the OSBF, said. “In that vein, we are delighted to support the creation of a video series on Ohio’s Sunshine Laws that will help people appreciate what the laws are, why we have them, and how they promote fairness. That’s what the OSBF is all about.”

The videos are available for viewing on the Ohio Attorney General’s website and cover the following topics:

  • What is a “public office” and what is a “public record” under the Public Records Act?
  • How do you make a public records request?
  • How is the Confidential Law Enforcement Investigatory Records (CLEIRs) exemption applied?
  • Who is a “public body” subject to the Open Meetings Act?
  • When can a public body enter into executive session for the purpose of consulting with its legal counsel?
  • When can a public body enter into executive session for the purpose of discussing personnel matters?
  • What remedies exist under Ohio’s Sunshine Laws?
  • How can the Ohio Attorney General’s Public Records Mediation Program help resolve disputes about Ohio’s Sunshine Laws?

For more information about the Public Records Act, the Open Meetings Act, or the Sunshine Law informational videos, call the Ohio Attorney General’s Office at 800-282-0515 or visit www.OhioAttorneyGeneral.gov.

Frank Lewis can be reached at 740-353-3101, Ext. 252, or on Twitter @FrankLewispdt.