By Randy Ludlow, The Columbus Dispatch

Open-government advocates are disturbed by a public-records ruling handed down by the Ohio Supreme Court last week.

The justices voted 6-1 to uphold a ruling against a South Euclid woman who was denied recovery of attorney fees in a case where the city did not turn over records she had sought until she went to court.

The woman maintained she was entitled to mandatory reimbursement of her legal fees. The court majority disagreed, ruling that a 2007 change in state law made payment of a plaintiff’s attorney fees mandatory only if a court ordered the production of records.

After ignoring the woman’s records request for two months, South Euclid finally turned over the records a couple of days after she filed a complaint in court.

Justice Sharon L. Kennedy was the lone dissenter. “If no fees could be awarded unless the court had ordered a party to produce records, it would allow a public office to sit on a public-records request until a case was filed and then turn over the records before the court had a chance to issue an order,” she wrote.

Dennis Hetzel, executive director of the Ohio Newspaper Association, said: “Unlike many other states, Ohio citizens have few options other than going to court if their requests are rebuffed.

“Public-records cases aren’t typical lawsuits. The relief you want is the record, not money, and you shouldn’t have to be wealthy to fight City Hall. In this decision, the court has made it much more difficult to recover attorney fees.”

The court ruled that the woman was entitled to a recovery of damages. Ohio law caps public-records damages at $100 a day and a maximum of $1,000.

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