Ohio’s Public Records Act was enacted in 1963 to promote open, transparent government through orderly access to public records. However, disputes sometimes arise when those who ask a government agency for public records have their request denied or feel the response is delayed unreasonably. The recourse in the law is filing a lawsuit, which may not be a option in many situations.
My office is committed to upholding the spirit and purpose of the Ohio Public Records Act. We want citizens to receive the records they’re entitled to, and we want government entities to have a clear and reasonable path toward complying with a request. We want to protect the rights and interests of Ohioans, the media and local officials, and to work toward resolving disputes before they’re litigated. To speed up the process, and to save taxpayers’ money and everyone’s time, we launched a voluntary public records mediation program in July 2012.
Our mediation program assists (1) those who believe their request for records was improperly denied or was not responded to in a reasonable amount of time; and (2) local public officials who struggle with requests they see as ambiguous, overly broad, or difficult to fill. Anyone who has requested public records from a local public office, or a public office that has received a public records request, can apply for mediation so long as the requester hasn’t already filed a lawsuit.
For example, a requester called our office after not receiving a response to the five public records requests he made to a school district. We contacted the school district, told them about our Public Records Mediation Program, and they agreed to voluntarily participate. A trained mediator worked with the requester and the school district, both parties agreed to a resolution, and the requester received the records he had asked for.
Hoping to narrow what she saw as an overly broad request, a school district president engaged our mediation program. A trained mediator brought the school district and the requester together in a telephone session, the two parties revisited the scope of the request, and the school district was able to locate, retrieve and deliver the appropriate public records.
In another case, after a public records request to a police department asking for an officer’s personnel file went unanswered for two weeks, another requester contacted our office for assistance. We learned that employee turnover in the police department caused the delay. We informed the requester and a short time later he let us know that he had received the records he asked for.
Many public records disputes arise from a “failure to communicate.” Records disputes are common when requesters make imprecise requests or public agencies fail to engage requesters after a request is made. As the previous examples show, our Public Records Mediation Program helps resolve disputes before a lawsuit by encouraging communication regarding what records are actually needed or available.
I am proud of our office’s record of results. Since the program was implemented, we’ve received 212 mediation requests. Our Public Records Unit helped resolve 91 of those requests before mediation was necessary. We’ve conducted 31 mediations, completely resolved 23 requests, and partially resolved three requests. The remaining requests are pending, scheduled for mediation, or were determined to be ineligible or inappropriate for mediation.
For more information about Ohio’s public records laws, our voluntary mediation program, or to submit a request for mediation, contact our Public Records Unit at 898-958-5088 or visit our website at www.ohioattorneygeneral.gov/publicrecordsmediationprogram.
Mike DeWine is Ohio’s attorney general.