This story is part of the package “Ohio: Open for Inspection?” on a statewide public records audit conducted by the Ohio Coalition for Open Government and Ohio media organizations.
Columbus — Every day, public records allow Ohioans to make educated decisions about their lifestyles, their pocketbooks and the effectiveness of their government.
Government at all levels merely is the custodian of the people’s records — not the owner. The law states that they belong to all Ohioans.
Don’t hesitate to exercise your public records rights. It’s your government, your money, your records. Here’s a primer on making requests under Ohio’s Public Records Act in section 149.43 of the Revised Code.
Know the law because some government officials don’t. Download a copy of the “Yellow Book” manual of Sunshine laws from the website of Attorney General Mike DeWine and familiarize yourself with the law. It can be complex.
It’s best to request routine records verbally. You need not identify yourself or explain the reason for your interest. Written requests can be seen as adversarial and drag in the lawyers to delay your request. However, if your request is complex or could generate push-back, file a written request to bring clarity to the matter and document your request should trouble ensue.
Know that asking to inspect records in person should allow you to see them more quickly — and without cost. Requesting copies buys government more time to provide them. You also are entitled to receive records in the form they are kept (electronic, database, etc.) and they must be delivered in the manner you prefer — email, CD, fax or in-person pick-up. If you ask for records to be mailed, you can be asked to pre-pay postage costs.
Ohio is among only a handful of states that sets no deadline for government to provide records. The legal standard is “prompt.” Court rulings have signaled, though, that waits of more than two weeks likely are unreasonable.
Outside of minimal copying costs — such as 5 cents a page for paper copies or $1 for a CD containing digital records — government cannot charge you for records. Charges for employee time or other “costs” are not allowed.
“Overly broad” has become government’s new mantra in denying records. Be very specific in describing the records you seek. Do not use words such as “any” and “all.” Provide names, date ranges, topics and describe the records you seek in full detail. If your request is confusing or denied, government is required to work with you to clarify your request so records can be provided.
If your request is denied, or information is redacted, an explanation must be provided in writing. Government that denies records or blacks out information is required to cite specific public-records exemptions or other sections of law that it believes allows the records to be withheld. Again, consult the law and evaluate the reasons for denial; appeal and argue if the excuse is iffy.
If dealing with a local government or school district that denies your request or is slow to respond, ask for help through the public-records mediation program of the attorney general’s office. Lawyers who know Sunshine laws could help shake your records loose. (The mediation program cannot help with state agencies or a public university since the AG’s office serves as their lawyer.)
Randy Ludlow, a state government reporter for The Columbus Dispatch, has blogged for years on public records and transparency issues.