Pressure needed for open gov’t

At every level of government, secrecy – sometimes, seemingly, solely for its own sake – often is the watchword of public officials. That is why states and the federal government have open meetings and records law – to ensure the public is not shut out of its own business.

Too often, however, freedom of information laws are enacted and forgotten, except by those intent on circumventing the statutes’ intent. That seems to have been the situation in Ohio.

An open records law was enacted in Columbus in 1963, and it was very straightforward. Only one type of information, that contained in medical records, was exempted from mandatory disclosure rules.

But in the half-century since then, the closed government crowd has brought the ceiling down on Ohio’s open records law. Since 1963, legislators have approved 29 categories of documents that do not have to be released to the public. That is just in the open records statute itself.

Elsewhere in state code, nearly 400 more exemptions to the open records rule have been put in place.

Is this secrecy really necessary?

In many situations, perhaps so. For example, law enforcement agencies should not be compelled to release information that might jeopardize an investigation, though some abuse that exemption.

A substantial number of exemptions are not in Ohioans’ best interests, however. For example, proceedings of the state ethics commission can be kept confidential, even when wrongdoing is uncovered.

It has been suggested the state’s open records law should be given another look. That is more than just a good idea – given the ability exemptions have provided to keep the public’s business secret, it ought to be viewed as a necessity.

Such a review is highly unlikely to happen without pressure from the public. Remember, the same government officials who want to keep secrets are in charge of defining what can be released to the public. This is a situation in which public officials tend to stick together.

Thoughtful residents should be telling their legislators they want a review – and a housecleaning – of the open records law.