Close the loophole in Ohio’s open meetings law

Government officials and employees who want to keep secrets have a powerful tool at their disposal. They can just say “no” to requests for public records, often confident those asking for them cannot afford the time and money needed to challenge rejections in court.

The great irony is that if court cases do result, the bureaucrats and officials will not have to spend a dime of their own money. Taxpayers will cover attorneys for local, state and federal governments.

Ohio state Senate President Keith Faber has what may be a better idea. Faber, R-Celina, wants to fast-track the process of appealing cases under the state’s open records law – and make it much cheaper to pursue them.

Faber’s proposal would offer Buckeye State residents an alternative to filing traditional court cases to gain access to government documents. Instead, they could pay a $25 filing fee in the county courts, then have their cases heard by the state Court of Claims. Appellants would not have to hire attorneys. Cases first would be considered by special mediators, who could suggest ways to resolve them. Should that not work, Court of Claims judges would issue binding rulings.

Two champions of the public’s right to information, state Auditor Dave Yost and Attorney General Mike DeWine, like Faber’s idea. Both have offered alternatives to the current system, but neither seems as simple and cost-effective as Faber’s plan.

Faber has introduced a bill to implement his proposal, and hopes it can be approved by early summer. Legislators should go along with the idea, and provide the $500,000 estimated to be needed to implement it.

Ohio’s open records statute is the law. But too many times, it is circumvented by officials confident they can get away with thumbing their nose at the public’s right to know. Faber’s bill could curb such abuses.