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Sun not shining everywhere in county

I’d often heard people referencing “where the sun don’t shine” but I had no idea that they were talking about the government.

OK, maybe they weren’t exactly talking about government but, unfortunately, that is far too often the case when it comes to Ohio’s open records laws, commonly called Sunshine Laws because the goal was to illuminate what was going on in government.

While Ohio — and Lawrence County — has made great strides in this area, the reality is that many government or publicly-funded entities still don’t understand what these laws mean and what documents are covered.

Now is the perfect time to shine a light on the fact the sun isn’t shining nearly as brightly as it should.

Today marks the start of Sunshine Week.

Launched in 2005 by the American Society of News Editors, “Sunshine Week is held annually to promote dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information. Participants include hundreds of print, broadcast and online news media, civic groups, libraries, nonprofits, schools and others interested in the public’s right to know.”

This is truly a worthy project on which all us, as citizens of a free country with a government of the people, must remain vigilant.

Perhaps the most important component that can come from this week is a better understanding of what exactly is considered a public record.

Nearly any record kept by a public office, whether it is in paper, computer file, film or any other form, is considered a public document. Ohio law says any person should be able to inspect public records promptly. The law goes on to say that photocopies of that record should be available within a reasonable period of time and at a reasonable cost.

Public documents include property transfers, marriage licenses, divorce filings, lawsuits, salaries for all public employees such as school superintendents and police chiefs, police incident reports, minutes from meetings, contracts and phone bills, just to name a few.

And remember, the press has no more right to this information than anyone else. The information itself may not be public but the documents are. It doesn’t matter who you are, why you want them or whether or not the agency wants to share the information.

Those seeking records don’t have to identify themselves. They don’t have to say what the records are being sought for. They don’t have to submit a written request, regardless of a public body’s policies that may try to dictate these stipulations.

Providing these public documents is the law.

Having participated in a statewide public records audit about six years ago, I saw first hand how lacking the state was at following the law. Of the six records requested in Jackson County, two were provided immediately, two the next day and two were denied.

Here in Lawrence County, only one of the records was provided in a timely manner and without the auditor identifying herself as a reporter.

The most common deterrent is the fact that the employees simply don’t understand the law and are often incorrect in their assumption of what is public or not.

Sunshine Week organizers say “the initiative is increasing public awareness, it’s coming up more often in policy conversations, and the efforts of participants are being cited as real forces for moving the public away from simply accepting excessive and unwarranted government secrecy.”

That seems to be true. It has gotten better here but there are still many areas that have much room to improve. It may be time for another audit of public records here and across the state.

Democracy relies on an open government in which the people have the right to see exactly what our “employees” are doing and how our money is being spent.

This “sun” needs to shine brightly all year long.

Michael Caldwell is publisher of The Tribune. To reach him, call (740) 532-1445 ext. 24 or by e-mail at mike.caldwell@irontontribune.com.