Last week was “Sunshine Week,” celebrating open records and open meetings laws across the country. As in other states, Ohio’s law clearly calls for government that is open to the public. Yet those who closely watch how the law is interpreted see a disturbing trend, public officials often seeking ways to shield their actions.
Thankfully, state Sen. Shannon Jones, a Springboro Republican, has introduced legislation that reflects the original spirit of the state’s Open Meeting Act. It closes loopholes and adds requirements for public bodies when they claim exemptions to discuss matters in secret.
The bill expands the definition of what constitutes a meeting to include information sessions during which a majority of members receive reports, presentations or comments. That would make “informational” or “fact-finding sessions” open the public. Dennis Hetzel, the executive director of the Ohio Newspaper Association, and others accurately point out that such meetings often provide the only productive opportunity for the public to participate.
The Jones legislation also would require that motions to go into executive session be specific, including, for example, the names of the attorneys handling cases and case numbers when discussing pending litigation. Minutes of an executive session would be required to include not only the general subject matter, as now mandated, but also who attended, how long the meeting lasted and how long each person attended.
Another section would make it easier for members of the public who win court battles over open meetings to recover attorney’s fees and litigation expenses. The bill would mean that a person filing suit would not have to prove a broad public benefit to recover fees and expenses, counteracting court rulings that place an unreasonable burden on average citizens. In effect, the bill recognizes that an open meeting automatically benefits the public.
Jones notes that she is willing to discuss open records, too. On that front, the legislature has shown an alarming tendency to grant one exemption after another to the public records law. Exemptions now have grown to 30, and more are pending in the current legislative session.
Shannon Jones is right. When it comes to open meetings and open records, the law must be “liberally construed on behalf of the public’s right to know.” Reasserting the idea that the public’s business should be done in public is essential to democracy. Without access to records and meetings, citizens are denied the information they need to make decisions, then make their voices heard to officials and at the ballot box. The Jones bill deserves prompt action, soon joined by a companion measure advancing open records.