Editorial from The Columbus Dispatch

Ohioans rely on easy access to public records to keep tabs on their government — as in, did the city council’s meeting minutes show it will fight a liquor-license renewal for a crime-ridden corner carryout?

And to keep government honest and defend themselves from abuses of power, such as when people are released from prison after public records reveal misconduct by the government officials who helped convict them.

More often, however, people seek public records to take care of everyday business: getting a birth certificate for a passport, checking a restaurant’s health-department inspection or scouring police reports for neighborhood crime.

So it is good news that local governments are obeying open-records law at a much higher rate than they did a decade ago, as reported by The Dispatch on Wednesday.

Public employees asked to provide common records did so 9 out of 10 times, according to a new survey by the Ohio Coalition for Open Government of the Ohio Newspaper Association. The group last canvassed the state in 2004, when just 7 out of 10 requests were fulfilled in substantial compliance with the law.

A 70 percent response rate was unacceptable. And though 90 percent is much better, it’s not perfect. Public employees should follow the state law 100 percent of the time.

The 10 percent noncompliance rate is particularly notable because the requests were for documents and information that should be at hand, such as meeting minutes, birth records, mayors’ expense reports and superintendents’ pay.

The television, radio and newspaper reporters who served as auditors for the April survey didn’t reveal their press credentials to make sure they were receiving the same treatment as any other member of the public.

A weakness of Ohio’s open-records law is its lack of strong sanctions against government entities that illegally withhold public records. Penalties for noncompliance are capped at $1,000, and those who sue for access to records can only recoup $10,000 in attorney fees — insufficient for a long fight. In recent years, Ohio’s legislature and courts also have chipped away at access to public records.

Public servants should remember that they are the custodians, not the owners, of government records. Their job is to make them available.

In this, the coalition’s survey is invaluable.

But others still learn the law. ONA auditors’ requests were sometimes followed by impermissible questions, such as a demand to know the person’s name or to submit requests in writing, neither required by the law.

The audit also exposed “digital holes”: Email addresses on websites didn’t work, requests landed in junk-mail folders and some websites failed to list a contact through which to obtain public records, leaving users to guess.

At minimum, said Dennis Hetzel, ONA’s executive director, even the smallest county should have a general email account and check it throughout the day.

The Internet should make it easier for local governments to post public records to better serve their taxpayers and to save staff time filling public-records requests.

With 1 in 10 records requests denied, Ohio still has a problem. Ohioans should arm themselves with knowledge of the law and hold their employees accountable.

To see the state’s records laws and explanations of them, go to www.ohioattorneygeneral.gov/sunshine.

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