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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Here is a great idea: rate your state’s FOI proposals!

Now this is clever:

A coalition of news organizations from across Utah has created a new system to rank legislation dealing with the state’s open records law.

The Utah Media Coalition’s rating system will let the public and lawmakers know how it views proposed changes to the Government Records Access and Management Act, or GRAMA, Provo’s Daily Herald and the Salt Lake Tribune reported.

The system will rank proposed changes in three categories: a “bright light” for legislation that is good for open government, a “pale light” for legislation that is neutral, and “lights out” for legislation that would harm open government access.

The new GRAMA WATCH program follows a public outcry last year when lawmakers rewrote Utah’s records law to protect text messages, instance messages and video chat from public release. Gov. Gary Herbert called lawmakers back into session to repeal HB477.

“I think after the HB477 fiasco, the public and media need to do a better job watching the legislative process,” said Joel Campbell of the media coalition. “We will be rolling out a rating whenever we identify a bill that deals with GRAMA. We feel this will keep the public involved in the process.”

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.