Keeping government honest: Know your rights when requesting public records

Public records are exactly that—public—and you the taxpayer, not government officials, own them. So you shouldn’t hesitate to request the records you need to make informed decisions about your well-being, that of your community, or the effectiveness of your government.

Know the law and your rights, because not every government official does, especially at local levels of government, activists say.

Success in obtaining public records “varies from place to place and from individual to individual,” says Stephanie Wright, a citizen advocate and watchdog based in Colerain Township, a suburb of Cincinnati.

In 2018, Wright and fellow advocate Kathy Mohr requested invoices to see how much Colerain Township was paying an attorney under contract to the township to challenge the duo’s claims to public records. After repeated denials of their request ended in mediation with the Ohio Court of Claims, the township released the invoices but with the name and fees of the attorney redacted.

“They claimed it was protected by attorney-client privilege,” Wright says. Normally, that privilege applies to advice between attorney and client, not their fees.

The two made the same request to nearby Fairfield Township, where the same attorney was under contract. They received the requested invoices with nothing redacted. “Everything was there,” Mohr says.

Citizen activists who want to make a difference in their communities can start by downloading a copy of the “Yellow Book” manual of sunshine laws from the website of Ohio Attorney General David Yost. For more details and tips, and information on requesting federal records as well, check out the sidebar to this story.

The sunshine laws also apply to meetings of elected bodies and other public officials. Whenever a quorum of elected officials discuss or decide official business, Ohio law mandates that they conduct their business in public, with some exceptions. Five of Cincinnati’s nine City Council members were sued last year for conducting business via text and email messages in violation of the law. The members settled the suit for $101,000.



For routine public records, advocates say, keep it simple and nonconfrontational. Call or show up at the relevant agency and politely ask for what you need. Written requests can result in agency officials digging in their heels and calling in the lawyers. Inspecting records in person should allow you to see them more quickly — and without cost. Remember, too, that under Ohio law, you don’t have to identify yourself or explain the reason for your request unless you prefer to.

Lisa Knapp, a citizen activist in Delaware County, said government clerks will often try to intimidate citizens into identifying themselves by saying it's required by law or agency policy. Request forms often ask for the name, address, and other identifying information for requestors without pointing out that such information is optional, she says.

At one sheriff’s office she visited, they insisted that she pay with credit card or check rather than cash so that her identity would be known.

“Every entity wants to know who you are and what you’re looking for because they are paranoid,” she says.

It’s hard for average citizens to stand their ground, especially when dealing with a law enforcement agency, “unless they know their rights,” she says. If you are requesting public documents in person, she suggests recording your conversation with officials in case your rights are violated.

For requests that are complicated or could generate pushback, advocates say it’s better to file a written request to provide clarity and to document your request should trouble ensue. However, requesting copies allows government more time to provide them under the law. You also are entitled to receive records in the form they are kept (electronic, database, etc.), and they must be delivered by the means you prefer — email, CD, fax, or in-person pickup.

If you are new to filing a written request, websites like MuckRock.com and Harvard University’s Digital Media Law Project stand ready to help. For a fee of $20 per request, MuckRock, a nonprofit collaborative, provides online software that finds the agency you’re looking for and takes you step by step through the process before filing your request electronically. If you prefer, it can also share your request online with others who may be seeking the same records. MuckRock founder and chief executive Michael Morisy, a former Boston Globe reporter, said the collaborative was handling 300 requests a year when he started the website in 2010. Today, he said, they’re handling 300 requests a week, about a third of them from private citizens.

In a statewide test of Ohio’s open records laws in April 2014, sponsored by the Ohio Newspaper Association, public employees asked to provide common records followed the law in nine of every 10 requests. Requests included meeting minutes, restaurant inspections, birth records, a mayor’s expense report, school superintendents’ pay, police chief pay, and police incident reports.

Ohio's Public Records Act defines a “public record” as any record “kept by any public office, including, but not limited to, state, county, city, village, township, and school district units.” If the record doesn’t fall under one of several exemptions, the public office must make the record available for inspection or copying.

Minutes of official meetings should be available by simply walking in and requesting them, Knapp says, but not every agency complies. She waited two weeks to get a copy of the meeting minutes from the Delaware County Finance Authority, which provides tax incentives for businesses to locate within the county.

If an office refuses to release the records, a lawsuit, often filed through the Ohio Supreme Court, used to be the only way to force officials to release records. But many people drop their request because they can’t afford to hire lawyers, and the suits can take more than a year to be resolved while taxpayers foot the bill for the defense.

In 2016, Ohio passed a law aimed at reducing the cost of records disputes through a mediation process under the Ohio Court of Claims. If a request for public records is denied or delayed, the requester can file a complaint in their county clerk’s office for the Ohio Court of Claims. The fee to file is $25.

The government has seven days to respond. The Court of Claims attempts to mediate the problem between the two parties, and can do so by phone from Columbus. If the mediation fails, a special master renders an advisory opinion to be considered by a Court of Claims judge, who issues a legally binding decision. Either party can appeal.

Mohr and Wright said the Court of Claims has not been helpful in their experience. They filed a complaint with the court after they were refused records that identify 2018 township employees who received additional pay by opting out of the township’s health insurance coverage. The court’s final ruling was that the records fell under personal pay deductions for employees and were protected under HIPPA’s privacy rules. Mohr and Wright called the ruling “a diversion” from what they were really asking—the identities of recipients. They ended up paying court costs and mailing fees on top of the $25 requestor fee, for a total of nearly $100.

“It was a drawn-out process,” Mohr says. “In the end, we didn’t get what we asked for.” Mohr and Wright say they have records requests from August that township officials still have not turned over.

Support for Ohio Civics Essential is provided by a strategic grant from the Ohio State Bar Foundation to improve civics knowledge of Ohio adults. 

The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent those of the Ohio State Bar Foundation.

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