Thursday, February 14, 2013

Sunshine Law

Ohio’s Public Records

Did you know that Ohio is considered to be an ‘Open Records State’?  The state mandates training for all elected officials. It created an entire series of laws requiring meetings to be open to the public and documents kept by the various governmental entities are available for viewing by the public.

 History Lesson – When the United States originally formed – our founding fathers met in secrecy.  They had to. If they were open about their actions, they could have been hanged for treasonous acts against England. These men were wealthy, lawmakers, merchants, farmers – men of means. They risked everything to create a new, open government.  That’s right – these founding fathers believed in a government that conducted itself in an open and public manner.  One of my favorite Founding Fathers is Thomas Jefferson. He is noted to have said “Information is the currency of democracy”.
Ohio is the seventeenth state of the nation. It was the first state created under the rules of the Northwest Ordinance of 1789. Ohio is also the first state whose townships were mapped out through the Land Ordinance of 1785. This system of mapping was originally designed by Thomas Jefferson and although now in a more sophisticated format, is still used by the U.S. Government through the Public Land Survey System PLSS. 

Ohio’s government from its inception was created under a theory of open government.

The Yellow Book - The state, through the Ohio Attorney General and in conjunction with the State Auditor publishes a book called ‘Ohio Sunshine Laws – An Open Government Resource Manual.’ The resource is commonly referred to as ‘The Yellow Book’. This book is free and is available online at  The book lays out Ohio’s policies on open meetings and public records.  Get the book.  It gives you the tools to ask for public records in a step by step manner.

Public Record - What is a public record?  In a nutshell, Ohio defines it as any record kept by a public entity. Of course, just as everything else in law, there are numerous exceptions – records dealing with or about children, records revealing personal information about police officers, attorney-client materials, criminal investigation records (at various points of the investigation), etc.  Additionally, it can only be a public record if it actually exists. Most documents a person might ask for will fall into the category of a public record. 

Seeking Information - When seeking information from a public entity, it is important to be very specific about what you want. Include dates, types of documents, departments that would have the records – anything you can think of to specify what you are looking for. Then deliver the record request to either the person who holds the record or the statutorily responsible person. You can ask for the information in writing or verbally. You don’t have to give your name, but you can be asked for it.

Reasonable Time -  The government entity then has a reasonable time to respond to your request. What exactly is reasonable time? Well, that is another legal gray area. It can be anywhere from 2 days to 2 weeks depending on the complexity or volume of the request.

The Response - The entity is required to give a response to a request for information. Typically, it will simply be a release of the records requested. However, if there are any questions about whether the document sought is a public record or is protected by one of the many exceptions under R.C. 149.43, the entity should ask for assistance from their legal counsel who can help determine if there are exceptions to the release of records and respond in writing to the requestor detailing with legal authority, why the records will not be released. 

Writ of Mandamus- If the request was in writing and delivered either in person or by certified mail and if the public entity does not release the records or does not give a legal reason why the records will not be released, the requestor can go into the court and ask for an order requiring the release of the documents.  If this happens, the public entity may in addition to having to release public records also have to pay a fine of $100.00 per day up to $1,000.00 per document and additional costs including the attorney fees of the requestor.

This blog entry is the opinion of Katharina Devanney and is not intended to be a substitute for you seeking legal advice on the topic of public records specific to your particular facts.  For more information, see R.C. 149.43 or seek the advice of legal counsel.

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