Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Ohio has mediation program for disputes on public records requests

As I talk to bloggers and citizen activists in other states, they are continually amazed at how easy it is for Ohioans to gain access to public records. Our laws are definitely skewed in favor of release of records and are written to ensure public access.

But even so, we run into trouble getting documents or information we want. So the Attorney General's office has a program to help: the Public Records Mediation Program.

Under Ohio Revised Code 149.43, if you request public records and don't get them, your recourse is to seek mandamus action in court. An entity that failed to follow the public records' law may be liable for a fine (though it's not called that in the law) as well as your attorney fees.

But turning to a court process isn't a step many people have the time or inclination to take. Enter the Mediation Program.

The AG's website explains:

The Mediation Program is a voluntary and confidential process in which a mediator who is well-versed in Ohio’s public records laws helps the disputing parties through a process to identify the parties’ issues and interests, with the goal of finding a mutually acceptable solution.

They even provide a form online that you can submit electronically or print and mail or fax.

If your think that your request for records was denied incorrectly or if it's taking too long to get the records, you can request assistance through this mediation process.

Additionally, if a public body thinks a request is too broad or ambiguous - or just wants helps meeting a public records request - they can request assistance through the program as well.

The key is that both the public body and the requester must agree. And since the goal is the proper release of public records, there's really no reason for either side to object.

The mediations are private and confidential - and free!

Since the program began less than a year ago, 59 requests for mediation have been made. Of those, 23 were resolved prior to mediation.

Think about that - sometimes, just requesting the mediation is enough to get compliance from the public entity.

The AG's office has completed seven mediations, though one was not successful. And it's not sure-fire way to get what you're looking for - they report an 84% success rate with 32 of 38 disputes fully resolved, so there is room for improvement.

But still, if it can help you resolve your public records request without going to court, it's definitely worth a try.

If you'd like to know more about Ohio's public records or open meetings laws, you can attend a Sunshine Law training. It's a three-hour session and required for elected officials and/or their designee, but also open to the public. They're free as well!

With the law and the state AG on your side, there's no excuse NOT to make a public records request.

So - what have you always wanted to know?

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