Public Records and Open Meetings

 

The public’s right to Ohio government records is set out in the Ohio Public Records Act, which can be found in the Ohio Revised Code Section 149.43

A public record is something that documents the organization, policies, functions, decisions, procedures or other activities of a public office. Public records include:

  • Records kept by the state, counties, cities, villages, townships and school districts.
  • Records of any entity that performs a public service and is supported by public funds such as chemical dependency treatment facilities, public hospitals, communication action agencies and courts.
  • Records of expenditures made by nonprofit agencies in providing services with governmental monies.

The public has the right to prompt inspection of public records and the right to copies within a reasonable period of time. The public office can charge no more than the cost of copying the documents.


The Public Records Act

The Public Records Act makes special provisions for disclosing information about materials used by library patrons. Records that would personally identify a patron and the materials he has inquired about or checked out are generally not public records, but are available to law enforcement under certain circumstances, and can be disclosed under a court order.

The Act also protects records that disclose the configuration of certain aspects of public buildings, such as electrical, ventilation and water systems and security codes. Security records used to protect a public building against attack or sabotage are also protected.

For more information, see See Ohio Revised Code Section 149.432 and Ohio Revised Code Section 149.433

Many other records are exempt from disclosure under the Public Records Act and may be disclosed only with a court order. These records include:

  • Medical records
  • Student education records
  • Individual taxpayer records
  • Records of investigations of potential wrongdoing
  • Trade secrets
  • Records containing information covered under the attorney-client privilege

The Ohio Sunshine Law Update, an annual publication of The Ohio Attorney General’s Office, contains a comprehensive review of what records are available to the public under the Ohio Public Records Act.


Federal Freedom of Information Act

Enacted in 1966, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) generally provides that any person has the right to request access to federal agency records or information. All agencies of the Executive Branch of the United States Government are required to disclose records upon receiving a written request, except for those records (or portions of them) that are protected from disclosure by certain exemptions and exclusions of the FOIA.

The FOIA does not provide access to records held by Congress or the federal courts, by state or local government agencies, or by private businesses or individuals. All states have their own statutes governing public access to state and local government records. Click here for more information about FOIA and how to make a FOIA request.


Open Meetings

The Ohio Open Meetings Act can be found in Ohio Revised Code Section 121.22.

Public bodies must take official action and conduct deliberations on official business in meetings that are open to the public. This includes:

  • Meetings of any state board, commission, committee or similar decision-making body of a state agency, institution or authority
  • Meetings of any legislative authority, board, commission, committee, agency, authority or similar decision-making body of a county, township, municipal corporation, school district or other political subdivision, or local public institution or any subcommittee of a public body

Some public bodies are exempt from the Open Meetings Act such as grand juries, and the Adult Parole Authority. Also, most public bodies may meet in private by meeting in executive session, but they can only discuss certain things in these sessions, such as personnel issues, purchasing property, pending litigation, collective bargaining security arrangements, trade secrets, and other information that must be kept confidential by state or federal law.

The Ohio Sunshine Law Update an annual publication of The Ohio Attorney General’s Office, contains more information about the Ohio Open Meetings Act.


House Bill 9

In 2004 the Ohio Coalition for Open Government conducted a survey of all of Ohio’s 88 counties. More than 90 people from newspapers, radio stations, the University of Dayton, and Ohio University tried to get county commissioner minutes, an expense report of a county executive, police chief pay, police incident reports, superintendent compensation, and a school treasurer’s telephone bill.

In over 30% of the cases, access to records that should be readily available to the public was denied.
In over 17% of the cases, records were obtained only after complying with conditions that are not provided by the law, such as making requests in writing or providing proof of identity.
When records were denied, officials often claimed that the document requested was not a public record, set long waiting periods or were too busy to respond.

In response, Representative Oelslager sponsored a bill in the House of Representatives to require the Attorney General’s Office to provide training and develop a model public records policy, and to authorize a Public Access Counselor to provide a way to mediate disputes without resorting to litigation, along with other reforms.

Click here for the text of the bill. In 2006 the General Assembly passed legislation to authorize the Attorney General to provide the training along with some other reforms. However, the section providing for a Public Access Counselor was deleted by the Senate.