Lawmakers in Ohio too often block information from public scrutiny

Public records are supposed to be easy to obtain.

Lawmakers are supposed to operate in an environment free of ethics loopholes and potential conflicts of interest.

Almost nowhere in the country, however, are those issues of good government proving true on a consistent basis.

According to a study the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity released Monday, Ohio ranks sixth in the U.S. for state government openness and accountability. And while that sounds pretty good on the surface, the study gave the Buckeye State an overall grade of 68 — a D+ — showing just how abysmal the group regards every state in addressing government secrecy. The best grade was a middling ‘C’ for Alaska.

More troubling for Ohioans: The state was tagged with an ‘F’ grade in overall public access to information.

Too often government bodies deny individuals and watchdog groups the information they seek. In many cases, they cite the excuse that the request is “too broad.” Repeated attempts are met with equally vague reasons for denial.

And why not delay?

As the Dayton Daily News reported Monday in an article timed with the release of the study, government officials are empowered to stall or reject requests because Ohio has no formal enforcement mechanism or serious penalties to force adherence of its public records laws.

In other words, too many government bodies, by their actions, are saying, “You want a public record? Go ahead and ask. Just be prepared to wait and wait and wait.”

Eventually, in many cases, those seeking the information give up in frustration.

The Repository requested public records more than a week ago from Canton City Hall regarding some work calendars and a list of applicants to a scholarship program. Those are not broad requests, and a week should have been more than enough time to provide the information.

The newspaper is still waiting on both.

The Dayton Daily news noted that Gov. John Kasich won’t release his calendar in advance nor disclose how much the state pays for his security as he travels the country running for president.

For years, the state made it difficult to learn about the inner workings of its economic development arm, JobsOhio, and charter schools continue to operate in the shadows of open records.

Earlier this year, Ohio lawmakers voted to deny access to records on who holds a permit to carry a concealed weapon and also passed a bill blocking public release of the names of compounding pharmacies the state might use to prepare drugs for lethal injection.

Among positive developments, the report noted that state Treasurer Josh Mandel launched, a searchable database of state spending.

Mayor-elect Tom Bernabei has promised a similar open policy for the city of Canton’s finances under his administration.

Let’s hope these efforts represent the start of a swing in the direction of more openness in government everywhere in Ohio.

Canton Repository