Make public records access easier

An editorial from The Intelligencer/Wheeling News-Register         

WHEELING, W.Va. — Taking Ohioans’ right to government information more seriously has been a long time coming to the General Assembly. State Auditor Dave Yost deserves a pat on the back for serving as a catalyst on the issue.

Ohio has a very strict, clear open records law. Except in certain circumstances, it requires public officials to provide documents when members of the public ask for them.

But there is a catch. Should an official refuse to turn over records – even if the situation is a clear-cut violation of the law – the only recourse for the person denied access is to file a lawsuit. Secretive officials understand many people are not willing to bear the cost and effort of taking such action.

Yost has proposed a “Sunshine Audits” program under which people denied public records by state agencies can appeal to his office. Lawyers in the auditor’s office investigate such complaints.

When they feel officials are wrong to deny access to documents, they can issue findings that may spur release of the records.

It already has happened in two cases, one involving the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency and another with the Huron County Development Council. In both situations, records were turned over to requesters who had been rejected initially.

In a third case, Yost’s office found the state Department of Taxation was within the law in withholding certain documents.

But some members of the state House of Representatives are not happy about Yost’s initiative. They developed a plan to ban him from implementing the “Sunshine Audit” program.

This week, the lawmakers – apparently sensitive to the appearance they were promoting secrecy in government – backed off. The “Sunshine Audits” will proceed.

Some legislators made it clear they are concerned about possible political abuse of the program in the future, however. They say they want to develop an alternative – a way people can appeal records request rejections without going to court.

Good. Surely some means of accomplishing that can be found. Making access to the vast majority of public records easy and inexpensive ought to be a priority.

For many years, that was not the case, however. Again, Yost deserves praise for prompting legislators to give the matter a fresh look. They should provide a reasonable, effective solution to the problem.

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