When battle lines are drawn between citizens or journalists asking for public documents and the agencies being asked to release them, forging a truce between the two sides can score a victory for common sense as well as good government.
If there’s a conflict between residents or reporters who need information and officials who are in charge of providing it, the Ohio Attorney General’s Office can now play the role of a neutral mediator.
The Ohio Public Records Act promoted open, transparent government through orderly and disciplined access to public information. Our public records law, however, had one glaring weakness: For those who asked a government agency for public information and had their request denied or delayed unreasonably, there was no provision to settle the dispute except through a lawsuit. Ohioans without the resources to wage a court battle had no real recourse.
We want citizens to receive the information they’re after. We want government entities to have a clear and reasonable path toward complying with a request. To speed up the process, and to save taxpayer money and everyone’s time, we launched a voluntary Public Records Mediation Program. Our goal is to protect the rights and interests of Ohioans, the media, and local officials as well as work toward resolving disputes before any of the parties engage in costly and time-consuming litigation.
Here’s an example of how the program works.
A requester who had sought public records from a city municipal court asked us for public records mediation after nearly six months of waiting for, but never receiving, the records he requested. In addition, the city municipal court had not responded to his follow-up calls or emails. Our Public Records Unit worked with the city law director and ensured the documents were forwarded to the requester. The director was then also able to identify and fix the glitch the requester experienced with the municipal court’s system, thereby preventing problems with future requests.
Our mediation program assists (1) those who believe their requests for information were improperly denied or were not responded to in a reasonable amount of time; and (2) local public officials who struggle with requests they see as ambiguous, overly broad, or difficult to fulfill. Anyone who has requested public records from a local public office, or a public office that has received a public records request, can apply for mediation so long as the requester hasn’t filed a lawsuit.
Once both parties voluntarily consent, and once we determine mediation is appropriate, a member of our staff who is knowledgeable about Ohio Public Records law and professionally trained as a mediator will arrange a mediation session – usually a telephone conference call. The mediator will help each party see the other’s point of view but won’t offer legal advice or make a “decision” about the dispute.
In addition, the mediator can cite the law and how it has been interpreted by the courts. This may provide the “reality check” necessary for either the requester or the public office to bring their approach more in line with the law and move toward resolving the dispute.
The mediation sessions are private, confidential, cost-free, and can deliver results more quickly than protracted litigation.
Because the Attorney General represents all state agencies and boards and commissions, our office cannot mediate cases involving clients. However, we can often assist in moving toward a resolution in these cases by simply picking up the phone and calling our counterparts in these agencies.
We believe that this program is a win-win for all concerned. It saves time and money while helping public agencies get public records out to those who request them.
For more information about Ohio’s public records laws, our voluntary mediation program, or to apply for mediation, contact the Ohio Attorney General’s Public Records Unit at 1-888-958-5088, or log onto our website at: www.ohioattorneygeneral.gov.