Common Cause Ohio is celebrating one victory and going to work toward another in the ongoing fight to ensure that citizens have ready and complete access to information about the workings of government
The victory is a 5-2 decision announced Tuesday by the Ohio Supreme Court; the justices declared that all meetings by public bodies like school boards and city councils, whether conducted in-person, on the phone or online, are public meetings and subject to the state’s Public Meetings Act.
Ohio law “prohibits any private prearranged discussion of public business by a majority of the members of a public body regardless of whether the discussion occurs face to face, telephonically, by video conference, or electronically by e-mail, text, tweet, or other form of communication,” Justice Terrence O’Donnell wrote for the court.
The case grew out of a dispute between by former Olentangy Local School Board member Adam White and his board colleagues. White accused the other members of board of excluding him and the public from a series of meetings, in person and online.
Common Cause Ohio closely followed this case for several years and in 2015 joined with the League of Women Voters of Ohio and the Ohio Coalition for Open Government, to file a friend of the court brief supporting White.
As we savor the White case victory, Common Cause is looking to line up support for a new bill aimed at making it easier and cheaper for citizens to obtain copies of public records. Senate Bill 231, introduced by Senate President Keith Faber, R-Celina, creates an expedited mediation process for accessing public records.
The bill would allow anyone public record or experiencing an unexpectedly long or unreasonable delay to file a complaint with the Ohio Court of Claims. The government agency or public official involved would have a week to respond. If the two sides were unable to settle the dispute, a Court of Claims judge would resolve the issue, generally within 45 days.
While state law gives Ohioans the right to obtain public records within a “reasonable amount of time,” agencies often fail to respond or respond slowly to records requests. When requests are rejected, reporters and citizens must file suit to pursue their claims.
Open government is essential to a functioning democracy and Sen. Faber’s bill would help provide it. Let Sen. Faber know that you support a more expedited process for resolving public records requests. Timely information is important to the press and public alike.
Read the bill: Senate Bill 231
Good resource: Ohio Attorney General’s Ohio Sunshine Laws 2016: An Open Government Resource Manual
Office: Common Cause Ohio
Issues: Government Transparency