Leg­is­la­tors chip away at ac­cess to records

The Columbus Dispatch - - Front Page - By Randy Lud­low

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.

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