New understanding of 'open'
The audience at a Sunshine Law training session conducted at Youngstown State University last week was an interesting mix of public officials and citizen activists.
The officials were given a better understanding of their obligations under Ohio's open meetings and public records laws. The citizens learned about the rights the have to attend meetings and view public documents.
The local session was introduced by Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro and conducted by two members of his staff, Assistant Attorney General Martin Susec and Deputy Attorney General Audra Osme & ntilde;a DeVictor. It was sponsored by The Vindicator, one of eight newspapers in the state that participated in a statewide audit of public records compliance earlier this year.
Not a good report
That audit showed an appalling disregard for the state's public records law by many public officials and public employees throughout the state.
In some cases, the attitude of public officials or public employees to requests for information was that it was, basically, "it's none of your business." But, of course, what government does is the public's business. In other cases, public officials or employees were simply unfamiliar with state law.
Petro and his staff provided a brief history of Ohio's open meetings and public records laws, provided detailed resource materials on state statutes and court rulings and answered questions raised by public servants and private citizens alike.
Ohio has a long tradition of requiring government openness and a strong set of statutes designed to protect the public interest.
Running an open government is not always convenient. Sometimes, people demanding access to public records make demands that may or may not be reasonable. The advise from the attorney general's office was to work with the public to explain what is and what isn't possible.
But the bottom line is that if documents covered by the public records law exist, people have a right to see them. And meetings, unless they fall under a short list of specific exemptions, must be open.