Ohio Public Records Act
Ohio law has long provided for public scrutiny of state and local government records.
Ohio’s Public Records Act details how to request public records. The act also excludes certain records from disclosure, and enforces production when an office denies a proper public records request. The following will explain the details of this process; below is an overview of the 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 means its duty to respond to public records requests, and must keep a copy of its records retention schedule 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 form release, a public office must provide inspection of the requested records promptly and at a no cost, or provide copies at cost within a reasonable period of time.
Unless a specific law states otherwise, a requestor 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 requestor seeks. A public office can refuse a request if the office no longer keeps the records (pursuant to their records retention schedule), if the request is for documents that are not records of the office, or if the requestor does not revise an ambiguous or overly broad request.
The General Assembly has passed a number of laws that protect certain records by requiring or permitting a public office to withhold them from public release. Where a public office invokes one of these exceptions, the office may only withhold a record or part of a record clearly covered by the exception, and must tell the requestor what legal authority it is relying on to withhold the record.
A person aggrieved by the alleged failure of a public office to comply with an obligation of the Public Records Act may file a mandamus lawsuit against the public office. In this lawsuit, the requestor will have the burden of showing that they made a proper public records request, and the public office will have the burden of showing the court that it complied with the obligation(s) allegedly violated. If it cannot, the court will order the public office to provide any improperly withheld record, and the public office may be subject to a civil penalty and payment of attorney fees.
The Ohio Open Meetings Act
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. Public bodies must provide advance notice to the public indicating when and where each meeting will take place and, in the case of meeting in 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. Further, no vote or other decision-making on the matter(s) discussed may take place during the executive session.
If any person believes that a public body has violated the Open Meetings Act, that person may file an action in a common pleas court to compel the public body to obey the Act. If an injunction is issued, the public body must correct its actions and pay court costs, a fine of $500, and reasonable attorney fees subject to possible reduction by the court. If the court does not issue an injunction, and the court finds the lawsuit frivolous, it may order the person who filed the suit to pay the public body’s court costs and reasonable attorney fees. Any formal action of a public body that did not take place in an open meeting, or that resulted from deliberations in a meeting improperly not open to the public, or that was adopted at a meeting not properly noticed to the public, is invalid. A member of a public body who violates an injunction imposed for a violation of the Open Meetings Act may be subject to removal from office.
Like the Public Records Act, the Open Meetings Act is intended to be read broadly in favor of openness. However, while they share an underlying intent, the terms and definitions in the two laws are not interchangeable: the Public Records Act applies to the records of public offices; the Open Meetings Act addresses meetings of public bodies.