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Thread: Ohio's state government keeping more secrets

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    Ohio's state government keeping more secrets

    State government keeping more secrets
    Public records more costly, difficult to get

    COLUMBUS — Consider this:

    Ohio legislators created an arson offender registry much like the state’s sex offender registry, supposedly to deter the crime. But unlike the latter list, the names of those making the arson registry will not be public. That means you won’t know if your neighbor is an arsonist.

    Or this:

    Two-year reports from pawnbrokers that are now public would become secret under Senate Bill 262 now being considered by Ohio lawmakers. Those reports include the number and dollar amount of items surrendered to law enforcement.

    Or this:

    The Ohio Supreme Court ruled recently that asking for the emails sent to and from public officials is too “ambiguous.”

    What’s going on?

    Those are just samples of many examples of how state and local government is becoming more secretive as lawmakers and the courts turn transparent government to opaque in Ohio.

    What does this mean?

    It means you can’t see what your government is doing, where it’s spending your money or what deals are being cut. In fact, some public officials even want you to pay for accessing what are now free online records — such as the deed to your house or your military discharge papers — if you print them in your own home.
    Public records law out of control

    Since the state first enacted its public records law (Ohio Revised Code 149.43) in 1963, the number of legal exemptions spelled out in the law has grown from the first one — medical records — to 29, but that doesn’t include hundreds of other exemptions.

    Those fall under a catch-all section that says exemptions found in other state and federal laws also apply. One expert on Ohio records law expects the list to grow. But Greg R. Lawson, policy analyst for the Buckeye Institute for Public Policy Solutions, said he thought access was “probably about the same (as it always has been) or getting a little bit better.”

    The latest exemption? The records of the new JobsOhio agency carved by Gov. John R. Kasich from the former Department of Development are out of the public’s reach. Ohio’s top court said that’s OK, because JobsOhio is a private entity, whereas the development department was a public one.

    In the current two-year session of the Legislature, which ended last week with at least 1,006 bills being introduced, at least 44 proposals, amendments or bills dealt in some form with accessing public information, most reducing access. In 2009, the Better Government Association and the National Freedom of Information Coalition gave Ohio an “F” grade for its access law. Another 37 states received the same grade.

    “The entire law has gotten out of control,” said Dennis Hetzel, executive director of the Ohio Newspaper Association, which tracks legislations that impacts access issues. “The burden of proof has shifted to the plaintiff to show why a record should be open” because of Ohio Supreme Court decisions. That is the opposite of the original intent of the open records law, he said.

    “The statute gets more cumbersome and confusing every year,” said Mark Weaver, a former assistant attorney general and Columbus attorney who defends state agencies, local governments and school districts in public records cases. He said if average citizens and government workers are confused by the law, maybe it needs to be simplified, but that’s not likely to happen.
    Records treated as political weapons

    While not necessarily a new trend, Ohio’s two major political parties inundate their opponents in public office with records requests. Republicans did it when Democrat Ted Strickland was governor and Democrats are doing the same to Kasich.

    “It’s purely partisan,” said Rob Nichols, a spokesman for Kasich. “It’s one a day. They’re wielding it as a weapon.”

    Wrong, said Chris Redfern, chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party. He said the party made 28 requests in a six-month span, though that doesn’t include separate weekly requests for Kasich’s schedule. He said the party is still waiting for an Aug. 6 request to be fulfilled, which is long past the reasonable amount of time required by law.

    “(Nichols) d*oesn’t get to pick and choose” who gets public records, Red*fern said.

    The two sides are bickering over whether Kasich invoked executive privilege for a portion of the governor’s summer schedule (from June 1 to July 8). Much of the material handed to Democrats was blacked out, party spokesman Jerid Kurtz said.

    Nichols said earlier news reports that the governor invoked executive privilege were wrong. He said the blacked-out portion dealt with company trade secrets and security information dealing with the Kasich family.

    Executive privilege hasn’t been used since the Ohio Supreme Court created it in 2006. At the time, then-Sen. Marc Dann was trying to get records from Gov. Bob Taft about the “Coingate” scandal. Taft was later convicted of ethics charges related to the scandal.
    "Sorry, fellows, the rebellion is off. We couldn't get a rebellion permit."

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