from The Columbus Dispatch:
The outlook is sunnier for Ohioans who believe they have been improperly denied public records.
One year after its creation, an inexpensive and relatively quick appeals process at the Ohio Court of Claims is freeing records once withheld by governmental entities of all stripes.
Eighty-eight Sunshine Law cases have been filed and, the majority of the time, Ohioans are walking away with the records they initially were told they could not have.
With a $25 filing fee and no need for a lawyer, the program is allowing those seeking records to challenge government without the expensive court fight once required.
“Disputes are being resolved in favor of disclosure,” said Jeffrey Clark, the court’s Sunshine Law expert who handles cases not resolved by mediation. “We believe it is doing what it was designed to do — be an expeditious and economical method of resolving these cases.”
Court of Claims Administrator Mark Reed is surprised that nearly 70 percent of the cases have been resolved through mediation and welcomes the result.
“The program has been working well — better than we even anticipated,” he said.
Putting governments on notice that their denials are being reviewed has led to records being retrieved in 28 cases before mediation even started.
“It speeds them up; it’s a cattle prod. The next thing you know, all the records have been delivered,” Clark said.
Reed added, “Public agencies are taking those requests seriously and taking a hard second look at whether the denial was supported by the law and are trying to reach an agreement.”
Another 19 cases were resolved once formal mediation began and complaints were thoroughly aired with the assistance of a court intermediary.
Of the cases resolved, only 17 have advanced to a ruling by Clark after mediation failed to produce an agreement. He has ordered the release of records in nine cases and ruled that governments properly withheld records in five cases. Three cases resulted in “split” decisions.
Only six times has a Court of Claims judge been asked to review Clark’s decisions on appeal, and only two of those cases have advanced to review by state appellate courts.
The Ohio Department of Public Safety appealed a finding that the State Highway Patrol improperly withheld records about the dispatching of troopers to a North Dakota pipeline protest. But it was dismissed for failure to file the appeal on time.
Liberty Township in Delaware County appealed a ruling instructing it to turn over the interview notes of a lawyer who investigated a fire chief. The appellate court recently upheld the Court of Claims decision.
Of the 88 cases filed, the most (30) have been filed against the city of Cleveland, followed by a dozen complaints against state agencies.
The program was the result of a bill ushered into law last year by State Rep. Keith Faber, R-Celina, who then was Senate president.