Legislature must put #039;public#039; into records

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Anyone who has ever received a speeding ticket and tried to defend their actions by saying they didn't know the speed limit has probably heard, "ignorance is no excuse."

That same principle applies to Ohio's open records laws and the state's public officials.

Nearly any record kept by a public office, whether it is on paper, a computer file, film or any other format, is a matter of public record. Ohio law says anyone should be able to inspect these records ''promptly.''

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All too often, taxpayers are denied access to these public documents because a government official or employee has been misinformed as to the law or simply chooses to ignore it.

Rep. Scott Oelslager from Canton and others hope to prevent either of those denials from happening anymore by requiring training and implementing fines for non-compliance.

If this law was in place last year, many government entities would find their bank accounts a little emptier.

A statewide open records audit conducted by The Associated Press released in June found that Ohio had a long way to go in this arena. Public employees followed the law only about half the time when asked to provide records on an unconditional, timely basis.

Of the 491 valid responses in the audit, the auditors were able to inspect only 50 percent the day of the request and 13 percent more the next day. Auditors were able to inspect 17 percent more only after complying with one or more conditions not required by law, such as filing a written request or showing proof of identity.

The auditors were denied access to records 30.2 percent of the time. Denials fell under three categories: Procedure, personnel unavailable or not a public record.

In Lawrence County, only one of the six records were granted as requested. Our reporter went to Jackson County, where only two were provided that day, two more the next and two denied.

So, with these results still fresh in mind, the new bill was introduced in the Ohio Legislature Monday that would require offices to have written public records policies and would ban officials from limiting the availability of records by requiring the name of the person requesting information or how the information will be used.

We applaud this effort and urge all citizens to tell their Congressmen how important this issue is to them. Many believe that newspapers and the taxpayers must work together to be the governmental watchdogs. We must make sure that everyone knows exactly how long that leash is.