The Society of Environmental Journalists voiced its support Nov. 2, 2005, for a bill now before the Ohio legislature that strengthens that state's freedom of information law and offers a model to other states.
The bill (HB 9) adds fines for agencies that fail to respond to FOI requests in a timely way. It grew out of an Associated Press-sponsored "audit" of Ohio agencies' responsiveness to public records requests.
While it gained momentum in hearings this summer, the bill, sponsored by state Rep. W. Scott Oelslager (R-Canton), has yet to emerge from committee. Oelslager chairs the Ohio House Committee on Civil and Commercial Law, which has jurisdiction over the bill.
One major objection to the bill was one lawmaker's wish for an exemption for personal information on law enforcement officials. Ohio's House passed a separate measure (HB 141) expanding such an exemption by a 91-3 vote on Oct. 18, 2005.
The Oelslager bill would institute statutory damages of $250 a day up to a maximum of $5,000 for agencies who violate timely-response provisions. Oelslager drafted the bill in collaboration with Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro and Frank Deaner, president of the Ohio Newspaper Association.
According to a Toledo Blade summary, the bill includes the following provisions:
"Some open records violations are caused simply by a misunderstanding of the law," SEJ's letter stated. "The training included in the bill is among its most valuable measures, helping assure that those who face penalties are deliberate law-breakers."
- "Every elected official would be required to have training every two years on the requirements of the law; the training would be offered by the Ohio Attorney General's Office.
- "The definition of judicial records to which the law applies would be simplified.
- "The procedure for redaction of some exempt information from a record would be spelled out and it would be made clear that the rest of a document must be provided.
- "All public offices would be required to be managed in such a way that public records are easily searchable and accessible.
- "Disclosure of the records could not be conditioned upon the requester's identity or motives (spelling out what is already understood about the current law).
- "There would be a 10-working-day limit on the time granted for officials to produce a record before penalties would begin to apply, but requests would have to be delivered by hand or certified mail to start the clock running.
- "If an agency's efforts to frustrate public records requests are found to be egregious, the penalty would go up to $1,000 a day, with no limit."
"SEJ encourages Ohio lawmakers to seize this opportunity to become a model for other states and a national leader in its approach to freedom of information," the letter stated.
SEJ can act quickly to take positions on FOI matters under a mandate established by its Board of Directors. Issues relevant to environmental reporters' access to information are identified by SEJ's 22-member First Amendment Task Force. A position can be taken with concurrence of the SEJ President (Perry Beeman, Des Moines Register), Task Force Chair (Ken Ward Jr., Charleston Gazette), and Board-Task Force Liaison (Robert McClure, Seattle Post-Intelligencer).