June 12, 2017
Ohio has robust laws in place to ensure that the public business is done in the public and available for public inspection. From protecting citizens’ rights to attend meetings of local government bodies, to newspaper reporters being able to access and report on the financial records of the Cincinnati Streetcar project, or new public works proposals, the Open Meetings Act and Public Records Act, together the Sunshine Laws, provide for citizen oversight of their government.
First, the Open Meetings Act, R.C. 121.22, declares that, “All meetings of any public body are declared to be public meetings open to the public at all times.” This means that, other than those limited exceptions allowing public bodies to go into “executive session,” public bodies (city councils, township trustees, school boards) must conduct their deliberations in meetings open to the public.
Next, the Open Meetings Act requires public bodies to promptly prepare, file, and maintain minutes of all regular and special meetings, and to make those minutes open to public inspection.
Finally, the Open Meetings Act puts teeth to these requirements. Any person can bring suit to enforce these mandates. If you know of a violation or “threatened violation” by your local school board or city council, you can bring suit to force compliance. If successful, the court would enter an injunction against the public body to compel the body to comply with the Open Meeting Act, as well as an award of $500 per violation or threatened violation, and your reasonable attorney fees.
Thus, determination of whether the Open Meetings Act applies requires a multi-step analysis: Is there a “public body” involved? Was there a “meeting”? Was the public excluded from that meeting? And, finally, was such exclusion improper?
In addition to the requirement that public offices and public bodies meet in public and make minutes of those meetings available to the public, Ohio’s Open Records Act, R.C. 149, requires that public offices keep and make available any document, device or item, “created or received by or coming under the jurisdiction of any public office…which serves to document the organization, functions, policies, decisions, procedures, operations, or other activities of the office.”
Again, Ohio law provides for exceptions to the general rule that public records are to be kept and made available to the public (R.C. 149.43 includes both the exceptions and provides for enforcement by the citizenry). Certain confidential records are exempt from disclosure, for instance. If an appropriate request for public records is denied improperly (or ignored), the requester can bring suit to compel the production of the records, and may be entitled to up to $1,000.00 per record, and her reasonable attorney fees.
The analysis of The Open Records Act, also requires multiple steps. Is there a public office involved? Is there a document, device or item (i.e. a “record”)? Was this record created, received or coming under the jurisdiction of the public office? Does this record “document the organization, functions, policies, decisions, procedures, operations, or other activities of the office”? Does the record come under one of the exceptions to the Open Records Act? Was a proper request made?
This area of law has been litigated numerous times, and for every simple proposition of law, there is a court decision that muddies the waters. A recent Court of Claims decision announced that records of court proceedings commenced after July 1, 2009, are not subject to the Open Records Act, and efforts to obtain such records must be brought through a mandamus action pursuant to the Rules of Superintendence under R.C. 2731. This issue will no doubt be further litigated; and ultimately the Ohio Supreme Court will be called upon to clarify this question.
Finney Law Firm currently represents plaintiffs in three cases involving violations of the Open Meetings Act, and has represented both citizen activists and public bodies on questions of the Sunshine Laws. Finney Law Firm’s attorneys have litigated nearly every aspect of Ohio’s Sunshine Laws, and have given presentations on these issues to civic groups, officeholders, and continuing education programs. If you believe a local public body is violating the Open Meetings Act or need assistance obtaining public records, or if your group would like to host a presentation on Ohio’s Sunshine Laws, contact Brian Shrive.