Cincy Enquirer Before State Supremes on Conviction Records Denial

The Cincinnati Enquirer is asking the Ohio Supreme Court to order a Butler County judge to release thousands of criminal-conviction records it contends are being illegally withheld.

A judge has routinely – and immediately — sealed the convictions of some offenders, principally students at Miami University in Oxford, for 14 years, according to the newspaper.

Problem is, the records were illegally sealed and, as such, remain public records, The Enquirer argues in its filing with the Ohio Supreme Court.

The judge has been sealing records of criminal convictions by citing a section of state law that permits those found not guilty or against whom charges are dismissed to petition to seal such records.

Of course, the cases being disputed by newspaper involve convictions and different law comes into play. First-time offenders are entitled to petition a judge to seal a conviction after one year for a misdemeanor and after three years for certain non-violent felonies.

The Butler County prosecutor, who represents the judge, has said the court records cannot be provided because they have been sealed and have shed their status as public records.

However, the newspaper is arguing before the justices that since the records were illegally sealed, they never have been defrocked of their status as public records under court rules and state law.

Ohio Grapples With A Secrecy Epidemic….

Nice overview piece on Ohio’s penchant for keeping secrets:

Ohio legislators created an arson offender registry much like the state’s sex offender registry, supposedly to deter the crime. But unlike the older one, the names of those making the arson list will not be public. That means you won’t know if your neighbor is an arsonist.

Or this:

The Ohio Supreme Court ruled recently that asking for the emails sent to and from public officials is too “ambiguous.”

What’s going on?

Those are just two of many examples of how government is becoming more secretive as lawmakers and the courts turn transparent government to opaque in Ohio.

It means you can’t see what your government is doing or where it’s spending your money or what deals are being cut. In fact, some public officials even want you to pay for accessing what are now free online records – such as the deed to your house or your military discharge papers – if you print them in your own home….

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Ohio Launches New FOI Mediation Service

Citizens having problems getting public records from government agencies can now turn to the Ohio Attorney General’s Office for a new forum to resolve the dispute.

Attorney General Mike DeWine on Wednesday announced the formation of a public records mediation program.

The Ohio Attorney General’s Public Records Mediation Program, which will be overseen by lawyers in the AG’s public records unit, is aimed at resolving disputes over public records requests that are alleged to have been improperly denied or not responded to in a reasonable amount of time.

“Frankly, what we are trying to do is speed things up, save taxpayers’ money and get the people who want the information the actual information they want,” said DeWine in a phone interview. “Many times a request comes in and it’s a very broad request and the government entity is faced with denying the request or spending a ton of time and money trying to gather the records. We think a lot of these can get worked out, so that’s why we are doing it.”

Both parties must agree to enter into the mediation program and the person requesting the mediation retains the right to sue under Ohio’s open records law.

While DeWine couldn’t put a timeframe on how quickly a typical case would be resolved, he said speed would be of the essence.

“I told our team we should only do this if we can do it quickly. Our intention is to jump on this right away as most of these cases aren’t horribly complex and the legal issues aren’t horribly complex.”

A spokesman for DeWine said the goal would be to get an answer about whether both parties in a dispute would accept mediation within 10 days of the initial complaint.

Ohio Auditor: State FOI Law Sickly…

Ohio Auditor Dave Yost figures that if his office can’t quickly obtain public records, the average Ohioan faces “pretty tough odds.”

Yost today proclaimed that the “public records law in Ohio is alive, but not well” as he released a study of cities’ responses to his office’s request on Oct. 17 for copies of their annual payrolls.

Forty percent of Ohio’s 247 cities failed to provide records within the requested seven to 10 days, a figure that the auditor declared “unacceptable.” Within a month, 77 percent of cities had turned over their payrolls.

Two cities, Niles and Campbell in northeastern Ohio, still have not responded.

State law does not specify a time frame within which public-records requests must be fulfilled, instead using a “reasonable” standard. Yost said cities should be able to provide routine documents within two days.

“These documents belong to the people” and should be made available without delay, Yost said at a news conference that marked “Sunshine Week,” a national campaign to promote government transparency.

More here.

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Want to Read a Great Column on Why FOI Matters?

Look no further than here. This, people, is why access to government information is no luxury, and can never, ever be taken for granted.

Ohio Supreme Court denies fee-seeker dough

From the Columbus Dispatch:

Following the lead of state lawmakers, the Ohio Supreme Court has forbidden the collection of damages for illegal destruction of public records when money, rather than access to records, is the main motivation in filing lawsuits.

A party is not “aggrieved” and entitled to damages when his or her objective is not to obtain records but to seek the cash penalties accompanying the destruction of public records, the justices ruled in an opinion released today.

The court’s ruling involves a case from New Philadelphia, where Timothy Rhodes filed a lawsuit seeking nearly $5 million in damages over the illegal destruction of old tape recordings of police dispatch calls between 1975 and 1995.

A jury refused to give Rhodes any money, finding he was not aggrieved because his primary interest was money, not gaining access to records. He also had sought old police and 911 tape recordings from other communities.

Records: Burn ‘Em If You Got ‘Em, Ohio Pol Says…

A troubling legislative proposal in FOI-Land often involves an isolated example, coupled with narrow self-interest. Here is a beauty in Ohio, courtesy of IndieOnline.com:

A movement by some state lawmakers to significantly curb the penalty for destroying public records comes in direct response to two Massillon-area men who, critics say, are trying to profit from the system.

Ed Davila, of Jackson Township, is awaiting resolution to a records lawsuit in Bucyrus, where he initially was awarded $1.4 million in damages.

Massillon resident Timothy Rhodes’ case, in which he sought $4.9 million in damages from the city of New Philadelphia, is in front of the Ohio Supreme Court.

Those cases — paired with a slew of similar records requests by the men throughout the state — led to language in the proposed state budget that will protect local governments from large payouts.

State Sen. Bill Seitz, R-8, inserted language into Senate Bill 178 — the state budget — that will cap damages, known as civil forfeitures, at $10,000. State law calls for maximum damages of $1,000 for each destroyed record.

But public-records proponents say the proposal goes too far.

“We are opposed to this measure, though we understand the concern of local governments about those who would profit from wanting a record not to exist — which is the opposite intent of seeking a public record,” Dennis Hetzel, executive director of the Ohio Newspaper Association, said in an email. “However, we believe this measure would discourage cases involving legitimate records requests and could actually make it more attractive to a governmental body to destroy a record than fight disclosure of it.”

‘BIG BONANZA’

Seitz, of the Cincinnati area, said he was approached in December by a city solicitor in his district who was concerned about records-destruction cases in Bucyrus and New Philadelphia.

“There are plaintiff lawyers around the state that see this as a big bonanza for them,” Seitz said.

In crafting the language, Seitz sought “joint recommendations” from the state’s County Commissioners’ Association, Township Association, Municipal League, School Boards Association and Ohio Historical Society.

“These are taxpayer dollars,” he said. “To tell these small jurisdictions like a Massillon or a Bucyrus in these fiscally constrained times that they are potentially on the hook for six-figure or seven-figure damages for the routine destruction of records that are old makes very little sense. Why should the taxpayers be subject to that kind of a hit?”

The language also sets a four-year statute of limitations on seeking damages. It widens the class of documents that can be destroyed without approval from the Ohio Historical Society, the state archivist of public records. Attorney’s fees also would be limited to half of the forfeiture amount.

“It’s certainly not a license to destroy records,” Seitz said.

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