Ohio’s latest law could keep controversial public records in the dark


Earlier this month, Ohio Governor John Kasich, signed into law a bill that will greatly reduce the penalties for unlawful destruction of public records. Sandwiched in the budget amendment bill, and likened to SB 178, the bill sets a $10,000 limit per case in fines that a given agency can pay for destroying public records.

Before the amendment, the state’s Public Records Act prohibited anyone from removing, destroying or mutilating all records because they were the property of the Public Office ( Sec. 149.351.)

The implications of this bill are two fold:

1. Agencies now have leeway to burn or shred public records that they consider either controversial or unfit for the public to see. As long as they can pay the $10,000 fine, then they are good to go.

2. While advocates for this bill believe that it will stop people requesting documents they do not need (especially after they have been destroyed) only to turn around and sue for large amounts of money, opponents feel that the $10,000 cap on lawyers fees will prevent most Ohioans from suing agencies that destroy public records. Several transparency supporters, including newspaper publishers and environmentalists, believe that this is a direct attack on open government.

The Ohio newspaper Association, Ohio Environmental Council, Ohio Association for Justice and the Ohio Employment Lawyers have all signed a joint testimony calling on the Governor to remove the amendment to the Public Records Act from the budget bill. (See joint testimony at the bottom.)

Ohioans are also showing their displeasure in the study: A Quinnipiac University poll released this week shows that 50% of registered voters disapprove of the way the governor is conducting his work.

Ohioans and others dissatisfied with their governor’s commitment to transparency legislation (or, at the very least, their commitment to not signing into law legislation that will directly inhibit transparency) can take action against these kinds of transparency rollbacks. Our campaign to tell our governors not to roll back on transparency now has a tool that makes it easy for you to call your governor’s office and tell them that open government issues — like public records laws, financial disclosure, and open data — are important to you. If you don’t tell your elected officials that these issues matter, then anti-transparency measures like Governor Kaisch’s signing of SB 178 will be norm.

Make the call and let us know how it went. By continuing to track our governors’ actions, we ensure that their campaign promises of being transparent are not just promises, but actions they can be accountable for.

P.S. For those of you following our trip to Utah to visit the National Governors Association (NGA), we should note that Governor Kaisch recently opted out of the NGA because he did not feel like it was “worth the amount of money to be [a] member.”

Look for more coverage of our trip this week!

Ohio Public Records HB153 Testimony