Ohio’s Open Meetings Act enacted in 1954 and Public Records Act passed in 1963 known collectively as the state’s “Sunshine Laws,” are based on the belief that government belongs to the people. I couldn’t agree more, and, as a member of the Mahoning County Board of Elections a public body subject to those laws, I believe anyone and everyone should have access to our meetings and the documents we produce.
I’m in good company. The Founders including James Madison, one of the primary architects of our Constitution, clearly understood that public trust was critical to the survival of our democracy:
“A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives”
Over the 66 years since their enactment, Ohio courts have repeatedly recognized the importance of open government when asked to arbitrate Sunshine Law disputes. In 1976 Justice William B. Brown writing for a unanimous Ohio Supreme Court in Dayton Newspapers, Inc. v. Dayton set the standard for record production that has also been applied to cases involving public meetings:
“The rule in Ohio is that public records are the people’s records, and that the officials in whose custody they happen to be are merely trustees for the people; therefore anyone may inspect such records at any time…”
Given the Dayton Newspapers decision and the fact that both laws empower “any person” to enforce their provisions, one could assume that obtaining records or forcing public bodies to actually meet in public would be a simple, straightforward process.
One would, of course, be wrong.
That’s because we’re dealing with government and the legal system which means these critically important acts are wrapped in miles of red tape. For example, the Sunshine Law Manual published by the Attorney General’s office contains 35 pages of exemptions to the open records law that have been enacted by the General Assembly—including the one that exempts the General Assembly itself from the law. In addition, the courts and the AG’s office have issued numerous opinions that shield records and officeholders from public scrutiny. As a result, forcing government officials to operate in the open can be an arduous, time-consuming endeavor.
But it’s an endeavor that is well worth the effort. In case after case, citizens and the media have used the Sunshine Laws to expose government corruption, mismanagement, and malfeasance and to ensure that bad actors are held accountable for their misdeeds. Ohio is a better state, our democracy is stronger because a concerned resident or inquisitive reporter exercised their right to examine what our elected leaders are doing and how they are doing it.
Because we believe transparency and accountability are essential to the efficient operation of government, you can access a readable/downloadable version of the Sunshine Law Manual here: 2020-Sunshine-Manual_WEB It’s an A to Z guide that will enable “any person” in our community to utilize the Open Records and Public Meetings acts.
Take a look and then let the sunshine in…