Sunday, June 13, 2004

Questions and answers about Ohio's public records law:

Question: What is a public record?

Answer: Virtually any record kept by a public office, whether it's paper, computer file, film or any other form. That means a mountain of information is available, from the mundane to the momentous. It ranges from the pay of a school bus driver to Gov. Bob Taft's travel expenses.

Such openness is a pillar of a free and just society, said David Marburger, a lawyer who represents newspapers on public records issues. "The fact that we know that anybody can look at pretty much any record without having to justify it gives us a certain level of confidence that things are running," Marburger said.

Q: Who can request public records?

A: Anyone, of any age. You don't have to be an Ohio resident.

Q: Are public records readily available?

A: Theoretically, they should be. The law requires public offices to "promptly" prepare records for inspection during regular business hours for free. The interpretation of "promptly" varies. Courts hold it to mean that records be made available without unnecessary delay, Marburger said.

Q: What should I expect when I ask for a public record?

A: You might be asked to identify yourself and state why you are asking for the records, even though you're not required to supply such information. You may also be asked to fill out a request form. Again, the law does not require that requests be made in writing. If your goal is to get the record, don't automatically bristle at such questions. Tim Smith, a lawyer and professor of journalism at Kent State University, said an explanation will help put a records clerk at ease.

"The more forthcoming you can be in stating your purpose, you've got a better chance of getting what you want promptly," Smith said.

Q: Can I get copies?

A: Yes. Public agencies must supply copies within a reasonable time period, under the law. What is "reasonable" is based on circumstance. If you're asking for a few pages and the report is available, you should get copies right away. If you're asking for a lot of records, courts have recognized that public agencies need a little more time to prepare copies, Marburger said.

Public bodies can charge only for the cost of producing the copy. The Ohio Attorney General's Office charges 4 cents a page.

Q: Are some records exempt from the open-records law?

A: Yes, and they are numerous. They include taxpayers' records, child abuse reports, student records, state medical board reports, trade secrets, medical records, adoption records and records of "privileged" communication between a lawyer and client, according to the Ohio attorney general's The Yellow Book 2004: An Ohio Sunshine Laws Update, a primer on public records and meetings.

Q: What if my records request is turned down?

A: Speak with a supervisor and try to find out what legal authority the agency is citing in refusing your request. Marburger suggests finding an elected official who has authority over the agency. "They are much more receptive to the press and public raising a question," he said. Unfortunately, you have few alternatives if your request is rejected. Your remedy is the courts. If you win the case, the court may order that the agency cover your court costs and attorney's fees.

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