Ever get the feeling that a government entity doesn’t want you to know what is going on? Does it appear they want you to give them tax dollars but don’t want you to know what they are doing with those dollars? You need to know the law and stand up for your rights.
According to law nearly everything that is done by a government body is public record. You, the public. have a right to know, that’s why I want to inform you that in little more than a month, Ohioans will have a new, cheap and quick appeals process to potentially leverage loose public records.
On Sept. 28, the Ohio Court of Claims will begin accepting complaints on the refusal to release records by government at all levels, from townships to the state.
The law, the product of legislation from Senate President Keith Faber, R-Celina, will send complaints to a mediator who will work with citizens and government officials in an attempt to reach a resolution.
If no agreement is reached, a special master will rule within seven days whether government was legally correct in denying a records request or broke the law and must hand over the records.
Ohio never before has had an inexpensive process to resolve public records complaints, requiring citizens to hire a lawyer and go to court for what are expensive, prolonged fights.
The appeals process requires but a complaint form, a $25 filing fee and accompanying copies of the records requests and government denials.
Former Assistant Attorney General Jeff Clark, the office’s long-time expert on public records law, retired this month and will serve as the court’s special master in ruling on records appeals. He will be paid $100,006 a year. The court has five magistrates who also will serve as mediators.
This is important to you as a citizen because you may not know your rights under Ohio’s Sunshine Laws though they are actually available online on the Attorney General’s website.
One of the favorite tactics of school boards and city councils is to go into executive session with explanations such as – “We are going to discuss a legal matter.” Actually they must explain what the legal matter is before they go and they cannot make a single decision in an executive session. It is essential that you hold these government entities’ feet to the fire. Monitor their actions. It is your right.
If any person believes that a public body has violated the Open Meetings Act, that person may file an action in a common pleas court to compel the public body to obey the Act. If an injunction is issued, the public body must correct its actions and pay court costs, a fine of $500, and reasonable attorney fees subject to possible reduction by the court.
Here is something else you may not have known. All elected officials in the state of Ohio, or their appropriate designees, are required to attend training approved by the Attorney General once per elected term. R.C. 109.43. The purpose of this training is to ensure that all employees of public offices are appropriately educated about their obligations under the Public Records Act.
Hold your elected officials accountable to you. I know things have changed and government has begun telling you what to do instead of the other way around, but that has happened because of our own inability to stand up for our rights. We need to take those rights back and return to “government of the people, by the people and for the people.”
Reach Frank Lewis at 740-353-3101, ext. 1928, or on Twitter @franklewis.