The Scioto County Candor
“Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people, who have a right … and a desire to know; but besides this, they have a right, an indisputable, unalienable, indefeasible, divine right to that most dreaded and envied kind of knowledge, I mean, of the characters and conduct of their rulers” — President John Adams.
Sunshine laws exist as a way to not only ensure that the public is informed but also as a way to protect members of the public and allow for accountability and transparency in government.
Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine explains the function of Sunshine laws in the 2017 Ohio Sunshine Laws Open Government Resource Manual by saying, “My number one priority as Attorney General is to protect Ohio families. My office does this in a variety of ways, but one important way is by fostering a spirit of open government and by promoting Ohio’s Public Records Law and Open Meetings Law. Together, these laws are known as the ‘Ohio Sunshine Laws,’ and they are among the most comprehensive open government laws in the nation… By providing elected officials, public employees, and Ohio citizens with information about public records and compliance, we help ensure accountability and transparency in the conduct of public business.”
To ensure that all public employees and officials are in understanding of Ohio’s Sunshine Laws, the Attorney General’s Office provides the manual at no charge online in addition to trainings and an example public records policy for use by government offices.
Ohio Sunshine laws deal with matters including public records and open meetings as legislated by the Ohio Public Records Act and the Ohio Open Meetings Act.
Ohio’s Public Records Act defines how records requests are to be handled, what items are considered to be public records, what items are exempt and related basic principles.
“Any person may request to inspect or obtain copies of public records from a public office that keeps those records. A public office must organize and maintain its public records in a manner that meets its duty to respond to public records requests and must keep a copy of its records retention schedules at a location readily available to the public. When it receives a proper public records request, and unless part or all of a record is exempt from release, a public office must provide inspection of the requested records promptly and at no cost or provide copies at cost within a reasonable period of time,” Ohio’s Sunshine Law Manual explains. “Unless a specific law states otherwise, a requester does not have to provide a reason for wanting records, provide his or her name, or make the request in writing. However, the request does have to be clear and specific enough for the public office to reasonably identify what public records the requester seeks. A public office can refuse a request if the office no longer keeps the records (pursuant to their records retention schedules), if the request is for documents that are not records of the office, or if the requester does not revise an ambiguous or overly broad request.”
Public records are those records kept by a public office. The Attorney General’s Office defines public offices as:
• Some public hospitals;
• Community action agencies;
• Private non-profit water corporations supported by public money;
• Private non-profit PASSPORT administrative agencies;
• Private equity funds that receive public money and are essentially owned by a state agency;
• Non-profit corporations that receive and solicit gifts for a public university and receive support from taxation;
• Private non-profit county ombudsman offices;
• County emergency medical services organizations.
The Sunshine laws manual further explains that a private entity can also be a public office if it functions as a public office by conducting governmental business or receiving government funding.
Public offices are responsible for keeping their own records. Ohio defines records as being “any document, device, or item, regardless of physical form or characteristic, including an electronic record as defined in [R.C. 1306.01], created or received by or coming under the jurisdiction of any public office of the state or its political subdivisions, which serves to document the organization, functions, policies, decisions, procedures, operations, or other activities of the office.”
Such records can include emails so long as they are they are sent or received by a public office in relationship to public business.
Any person can request such records, which must be provided within a reasonable amount of time so long as the records are not exempt from open public records laws (items such as sealed legal documents, some medical records, contractual information, social security numbers). Even in cases of exempt records, the public office must provide a denial and an explanation of why the record with not be provided.
While Ohio’s Public Records Act deals with how public offices treat records of business, Ohio’s Open Meetings Act requires public offices to conduct public business publically.
“The Open Meetings Act requires public bodies in Ohio to take official action and conduct all deliberations upon official business only in open meetings where the public may attend and observe,” the Ohio Sunshine Laws Manual states. “Public bodies must provide advance notice to the public indicating when and where each meeting will take place and, in the case of special meetings, the specific topics that the public body will discuss. The public body must take full and accurate minutes of all meetings and make these minutes available to the public, except in the case of permissible executive sessions. Executive sessions are closed-door sessions convened by a public body, after a roll call vote, and attended by only the members of the public body and persons they invite. A public body may hold an executive session only for a few specific purposes, which are listed in the law. Further, no vote or other decision-making on the matter(s) discussed may take place during the executive session.”
Any person who feels that a public body has violated Ohio’s Open Meetings Act can file an action in common pleas court.
The Open Meetings Act defines a “public body” as any of the following:
a. Any board, commission, committee, council, or similar decision-making body of a state agency, institution, or authority, and any legislative authority or board, commission, committee, council, agency, authority, or similar decision-making body of any county, township, municipal corporation, school district, or other political subdivision or local public institution;
b. Any committee or subcommittee thereof;
c. A court of jurisdiction of a sanitary district organized wholly for the purpose of providing a water supply for domestic, municipal, and public use when meeting for the purpose of the appointment, removal, or reappointment of a member of the board of directors of such a district or for any other matter related to such a district other than litigation involving the district.
Public offices which are exempt from the open meetings law are:
• The Ohio General Assembly;
• Grand juries;
• An audit conference conducted by the State Auditor or independent certified public accountants with officials of the public office that is the subject of the audit;
• The Organized Crime Investigations Commission;
• County child fatality review boards or state-level reviews of deaths of children;
• The board of directors of JobsOhio Corp., or any committee thereof, and the board of directors of any subsidiary of JobsOhio Corp., or any committee thereof;
• An audit conference conducted by the audit staff of the Department of Job and Family Services with officials of the public office that is the subject of that audit under R.C. 5101.37.
Ohio’s Open Meetings Act states that a meeting is any pre-arranged gathering, any gathering of the majority of members of a public office or any gathering for the purpose of discussing public business.
“The Open Meetings Act declares all meetings of a public body to be public meetings open to the public at all times,” the Ohio Attorney General’s Office states. “The General Assembly mandates that the Act be liberally construed to require that public officials take official action and ‘conduct all deliberations upon official business only in open meetings unless the subject matter is specifically excepted by law.’
As a result, meetings must be held in a venue that is open to the public, and the public must be notified in advance of such meetings. Public offices may discuss matters in private during executive session; however, they must go into executive session after a vote during a public meeting. Furthermore, no deliberation, vote or action can take place during executive session.
Additionally, public bodies are required to keep “fair and accurate” minutes of all meetings. Though not required to be verbatim, according to Ohio law, minutes must “include enough facts and information to permit the public to understand and appreciate the rationale behind the public body’s decisions. The Ohio Supreme Court holds that minutes must include more than a record of roll call votes, and that minutes are inadequate when they contain inaccuracies that are not corrected.”
As with public records violations, any person who believes a public body is in violation of Ohio’s Open Meetings Act, can file an action against the body with the common pleas court.
Open meeting and records laws stand as a tool for Ohio citizens to use as a means of demanding transparency from their leadership.
For a full copy of Ohio’s 2017 Sunshine Law Manual, visithttp://www.ohioattorneygeneral.gov/yellowbook.