Ohio: a struggle to obtain public records from state officials

Where did a mysterious amendment come from, Rep. Ron Amstutz was asked after a House Finance Committee meeting in 2014.

After some hemming and hawing, the panel’s chairman came up with an answer:

Out of thin air.

He later said he was joking.

But Ohioans who want to keep track of both their tax money and their public officials don’t find much humor in the Buckeye state’s laws and everyday practices on government accountability, ethics and transparency.

In recent years Ohio’s legislature has weakened many of those laws – the same legislature that since 2012 has seen seven members convicted of crimes, including grand theft, bribery, perjury, money laundering and securities fraud.

“While Ohio has many appropriate ethics rules and a strong Sunshine Law, there are simply too many loopholes,” said Catherine Turcer, veteran watchdog with Common Cause-Ohio.

Sixth in the nation

To see the Center for Public Integrity’s full 50-state report on government openness, go to www.publicintegrity.org. The story includes an explanation of methodology, and descriptions of the 150 experts and other sources CPI used in its research. You can also find state rankings by chart.

Ohio earned a D+ in the State Integrity Investigation, an assessment of state government openness and accountability by the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity, but that modest score was actually good enough to place 6th in the nation. Alaska, which received a C, was No. 1. Michigan, among 11 states getting an F, was last.

In a 2012 State Integrity Investigation, Ohio got a D, which ranked 34th among the 50 states. Despite the apparent improvement, the two scores are not directly comparable due to changes made to improve and update the project and methodology, such as eliminating the category for redistricting, a process that generally occurs only once every 10 years.

The state did worst in simply providing overall public access to information, getting its only F in that specific category. Part of the reason for such a low score: unlike many states, Ohio has no statutory mechanism to monitor how officials are adhering to open government laws, no formal appeals process when access is denied and no serious repercussions if public officials violate these laws.

The tone has been set at the top.

As he was taking office in 2011, Gov. John Kasich tried to keep the public from seeing resumes of those who applied for jobs in his administration. He didn’t want to conduct his swearing-in in public, relenting only when newspapers protested. He will not share his calendar in advance, and doesn’t include political or other “unofficial” activities. And Kasich’s office won’t release even general spending information about taxpayer money used for State Highway Patrol security to protect the governor as he travels the country running for president.

When asked about Kasich’s record, press secretary Rob Nichols said in July: “Ohio is one of the nation’s leaders in government transparency, with some of the toughest, most comprehensive laws in the country to ensure that state and local government is accountable to the public.

“The administration is a careful steward of these essential principles and works carefully to make sure Ohio’s laws are enforced.”

While many state officials are responsive to information requests, the administration has several notable exceptions. “Overly broad,” a term originating in an obscure Ohio Supreme Court ruling, has become the operative phrase to deny requests for public records.

Several trips to court

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources had to be taken to court four times by the Sierra Club and other environmental groups before surrendering requested material. Separately, ODNR would not provide details of a 2014 capital improvements program for state parks because it wanted to roll them out at staged public relations events around the state. In another instance, the agency waited three months before deciding whether to take action on a request, and then said it would take another seven months to fulfill it.

The Department of Health denied access to records of contacts with “pro-life” groups until a lawsuit before the state Supreme Court was settled. The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency sometimes takes months to respond to public records requests. The Department of Education wouldn’t make public emails about possible misdeeds by state school choice director David Hansen, husband of Kasich’s presidential campaign manager Beth Hansen, for more than six weeks, even though officials maintained that those emails showed no wrongdoing.

In the past couple of years, two entities have generated extensive controversy over what information should be made public: charter schools, publicly funded but usually privately operated, and JobsOhio, a privatized economic development nonprofit launched by Kasich.

“The development of quasi-governmental entities like JobsOhio and charter schools permit lack of transparency and reduce accountability,” Turcer said.

However, 2015 also saw several positive developments in terms of open government:

  • The Ohio Supreme Court ruled that private college police records are public.
  • State Treasurer Josh Mandel launchedcom, a searchable online database of state spending – although the site’s managers have had trouble keeping the information current.
  • State Auditor Dave Yost implemented a voluntary mediation process in an effort to handle disputes over agencies withholding records.
  • The Ohio Senate opened Finance Committee hearings to live webcasts, as the House already had done. Prepared testimony is posted with the webcasts.

Still, the fight over government secrecy continues.

In their December 2014 lame-duck session, state lawmakers, concerned that Ohio was being stymied from carrying out executions, passed a measure keeping secret for 20 years the names of compounding pharmacies that the state wanted to prepare drugs used in lethal injections. The measure keeps confidential in perpetuity the identities of execution team members and physicians involved in the process.

And legislators finalized a series of ever-more restrictive laws on who has access to the list of Ohioans holding permits to carry concealed weapons. With an amendment to the state budget in mid-2015, the final thread of public scrutiny was eliminated when journalists’ right to view the information on behalf of the public was rescinded.

Criticism of study

Some Ohio officials take issue with the criteria used to measure public integrity infrastructure.

“While any state can improve its accountability, transparency and ethics laws, I really think Ohio’s comparatively low score is in part the result of what areas the Center views as most important,” said Tony Bledsoe, Ohio’s legislative inspector general.

“People of good intentions can debate what are the most important safeguards for public integrity. I have yet to see any study which demonstrates how the disclosure of lobbyist salaries prevents public corruption.

“I believe an area in which Ohio excels – making information readily available as to who is lobbying, the interests on whose behalf they are lobbying and the specific bills they lobbied on – is far more important than disclosing lobbyist salaries.”

Matt McClellan, communications director for Secretary of State Jon Husted, questioned why Ohio should be penalized for not having special campaign contribution limits on lobbyists. The same limits apply to them as everybody else, so it’s not like it’s anything goes, he said.

On the other hand, the study doesn’t include some factors for which Ohio surely would get a negative score. One example: Legislators exempt themselves from the public records law so they don’t have to disclose who actually writes the bills they introduce. Evidence suggests that some measures come straight from lobbyists for such groups as gun-rights advocates or teachers’ unions, while other bills match model legislation from the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council.

But without required disclosure, the public gets “out of thin air” answers.

And that’s no joke.

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