Legislators chip away at access to records
Sunshine lawyer Jack Greiner fears Ohio lawmakers may be out to “lap the alphabet twice” when it comes to government secrecy.
In the Ohio Revised Code, exemptions to the state’s public records law are labeled by letter — a, b, c, etc. The most recent exemption — the 31st — is designated (ee) in the law. Greiner, a Cincinnati lawyer who specializes in opengovernment cases, fears (aaa) may not be far behind as legislators continue to whittle away at the public’s right to know.
Yet Ohio has a solid public records law compared with many states, said Dennis Hetzel, executive director of the Ohio News Media Association.
And the state largely has avoided some of the moredraconian efforts to restrict access to records, as seen in other states, amid fears of identity theft and concerns about privacy, he said. Public records requests greeted with lawsuits / H1
But the ongoing legislative mindset favoring secrecy over transparency is like death by a thousand paper cuts, Hetzel said.
“Most of the time, what we are seeing are generally well- intentioned efforts to carve out new, sometimes small, new exemptions. But, in the aggregate, it is increasingly hard to manage a law with an ever-growing list of exemptions,” Hetzel said.
A case in point: The Ohio House of Representatives voted 95- 2 to pass a bill, now pending in the Senate, to forbid the release of the names and other information about children whose school buses are involved in accidents.
Legislative sponsors said the measure is designed “to protect our most vulnerable constituents” who could
“fall victim to heartless crimes” if their names and addresses were exposed.
Hetzel said the bill was a reaction to “a single constituent who was bothered by mail he received from attorneys” after his child was involved in a school bus crash. “People are perceiving a problem without offering evidence there is a problem,” he said. Journalists need access to such information to provide accurate, credible reporting, Hetzel said.
Five other pending bills would withdraw more records from the public, including a measure that would allow felons granted gubernatorial pardons to wipe public records clean of their conviction and make it easier for lower- level felons to seal records of their crimes.
“The greater effect of this is, we are chipping and chopping away at the core of public records and the presumption of openness,” said Hetzel, who also is president of the nonprofit Ohio Coalition for Open Government.
The General Assembly also is expected to move before the end of the year on legislation affecting how videos from police body cameras are treated as public records, said Hetzel, who lobbies lawmakers to preserve public access to records.
The footage must be a public record, but there are concerns that must be addressed — such as potentially withholding video captured inside private homes and of minors — to craft a workable bill, he said.