Q: I’ve asked a local government agency for public records, and I’m not getting what I want. What can I do about it?
A: Ohio’s long-standing public records law generally gives the public access to public records. You don’t have to be a member of the media to seek public records; they are open to everyone. Also, you don’t have say who you are or why you want the record. Even so, disputes often arise about the “what, when and how” of the records you seek. Ohio law says a public record is any record kept by a public office, but not every document a governmental body has in its possession is a public record. Knowing what records the law allows you to access and how you can access them will help you avoid a dispute.
A public record may take the form of a paper or electronic document, email, video, a map, a blueprint, a photograph or even a voicemail message. A “public office” is any state or local government office or agency, as well as any public school district office. Even a private entity may be considered a public office if it functions as one. The Ohio Attorney General’s Office has guidelines to help citizens seeking records and more information about public records at www.OhioAttorneyGeneral.gov/YellowBook
Q: What happens when there’s a dispute about public records?
A: Disputes arise over what constitutes a public record, and there are differences of opinion about what records should be provided to the public and what records should be kept private. (For instance, information in a prosecutor’s file for an upcoming trial is “exempt” from the public records law, but information about the outcome of a concluded trial is a public record.) Disputes also arise over when and how the government must provide a record, and what period of time is “reasonable” for the public body to respond to a records request.
When disputes arise between government bodies and citizens requesting public records, Ohio law allows citizens to go to court to compel the government to turn over the records.
Q: I’ve heard there’s a public records mediation program. What is this and why was it created?
A: The Ohio Attorney General’s Public Records Unit discovered that many disputes about record requests at the local level (such as a county or city government office or a school board) can be settled outside of court. For example, a dispute may arise because the office in question is not the keeper of the record requested, or the records request went to the wrong person, or the office found the request unclear. To minimize the time and expense and time of resolving disputes through the courts, the Attorney General’s Office has set up a voluntary mediation program. Mediations are free of charge, private and confidential. The program is designed to speed resolution of disputes and improve communication between parties by actively involving both sides in discussion.
Q: How do I request mediation for my public records dispute?
Currently, the mediation program is only open to disputes between local and county government agencies and the public. Because the Ohio Attorney General represents state offices, his attorneys do not mediate disputes between state agencies and the public. However, the Ohio Attorney General’s Office works closely with its state agency clients to fully educate them about their responsibilities under the Public Records Act. Contact the Ohio Attorney General if your public records issue involves a State of Ohio agency or office-holder.
Q: What if my dispute is with a state office or agency?
A: The Ohio Auditor'sOffice has initiated "Sunshine Audits," which are limited-scope reviews used to determine if a public entity has violated the Ohio Public Records Act. Private citizens and organizations can initiate a Sunshine Audit by filing a complaint with the Auditor of State's Open Government Unit. In order for a complaint to be reviewed, the complainant must first make efforts to utilize the Ohio Attorney General's mediation program.
After receiving the complaint, the Auditor of State's office sends notices to both parties, and they will have the opportunity to present their arguments. The Auditor of State's office will determine if Ohio's public records laws were violated and issue a report to both parties.
Q: What happens after I request mediation for a dispute with a local agency?
A: The Public Records Unit will find out if the other party is willing to engage in the mediation process, and will make every effort to let you know whether it will mediate your dispute within 10 business days. If both parties consent, the Public Records Unit will schedule the mediation and will notify you about the date and time. Most mediation discussions are conducted through telephone conference calls so you do not need to travel to attempt to resolve the dispute.
Q: Where can I get more information?
This “Law You Can Use” column was provided by the Ohio State Bar Association. It was prepared by Columbus attorney Dan Trevas.