Do you agree that government secrecy is bad? Do you believe the public has a right to know what's happening in its government?
Do you agree that government secrecy is bad?
Do you believe the public has a right to know what’s happening in its government?
Then consider this:
• ?Who has an Ohio fishing license is a public record, but who has a permit to carry a concealed weapon is not. Only journalists can find that out, under certain conditions (one name at a time can be revealed, a reporter cannot take notes, etc.). Lawmakers are now considering a law that would make those records completely private, open only to law enforcement.
Why should you care? Reporters in Indiana and North Carolina have shown that their state government dropped the ball in rescinding concealed-carry permits for convicted felons and others.
But lawmakers found fresh reasons to be concerned about Ohio law after a controversy in New York in which a newspaper created and published a searchable map of gun owners — something that could not happen under existing Ohio law.
• ?Police reports are public records, but a proposed law cloaks in secrecy meetings regarding complaints of misconduct by fiscal officers — from county auditors and treasurers to school and local-government money managers. Not only would the public not be able to witness the discussion, taxpayers would not be able to access any documents related to the meeting unless specifically made public by the state attorney general.
Additionally, public officials could make a referral to an investigatory body from these secret meetings. This is a de facto vote in executive session, violating a core principle of any good open meetings law: Officials cannot vote in secret even if they are allowed to deliberate in private. Given the nature of the public trust that public officials hold, allegations involving them should be as public as possible. If the charges turn out to be unfounded, that is part of the story.
• ?You can find out if your neighbor is a sex offender, but a new registry for arsonists — created ostensibly to deter crime in the likeness of the sex registry — keeps the names of fire-starters private.
Ohio once had outstanding laws on public records and open meetings. They were a national model. Today, there are so many exceptions and poor court rulings that the public’s right to know has been severely diminished.
Dennis Hetzel, president of the Ohio Coalition for Open Government and executive director of the Ohio Newspaper Association, said he doesn’t see a grand conspiracy to shut down public information.
“What is happening instead is that, for all the talk of limited government and less government, politicians of both parties keep coming up with more things they want government to do or change. Many of these changes raise questions about how they apply to open meetings and open records. All too often, the pat answer is to restrict access to make it easier in the short term for government to carry out its functions,” he said.
“We forget that government only is the custodian of information, and it often is possible to come up with solutions that don’t involve restricting access.The cumulative effect of all these restrictions will lead to huge problems in the long run. The burden of proof is rapidly shifting in Ohio from the presumption that government should be open. It often is citizens now who have to prove something shouldn’t be closed, which is an expensive and almost-impossible process in many cases,” Hetzel added.
Lawmakers already have changed state law to prevent the public and the state auditor from reviewing how millions of dollars that once went to the state’s general fund are being spent. The money, derived from liquor profits, now goes to the new JobsOhio office, a private, state-created economic-development agency.
Gov. John Kasich won support in the Republican-controlled legislature to keep all records of JobsOhio out of public view and off-limits to the auditor. Kasich also declined to veto a provision added late in the state budget process that allows local governmental bodies to keep many more details of economic-development proposals out of the public eye by meeting in secret.
What does all this mean?
It continues to get harder for you and us to find out what’s happening in government and public agencies.
And it was hard to start with.
Not a week goes by that we don’t have to fight with some bureaucrat over access to public information. Needless delay has become a routine method of keeping information from us and, by extension, you, the public. These delays frustrate us because they keep us from getting you information so you can be informed.
Recently, our publisher went to court to fight with the Columbus City Schools over illegal meetings it was holding. The meetings centered on an unprecedented scandal in which administrators were altering records to improve the district’s state academic report card. The company spent a great deal of money in order to prevent such meetings from happening in the future, an effort that prompted the Associated Press of Ohio to recognize The Dispatch with its coveted First Amendment Award.
What we want you to think about is this: When bureaucrats thumb their noses at reporters, they’r e actually poking you in the eye. We have made a more conscious effort to let you know when we’re getting stonewalled so you’ll know why your eye hurts.
Benjamin J. Marrison is editor of The Dispatch .