State Supreme Court Ruling Strikes at Heart of Transparency and Accountability Laws
CLEVELAND- The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio expressed deep disappointment over today’s ruling by the Ohio Supreme Court finding that Cuyahoga County’s transition groups are not subject to the state’s public records laws. The ACLU filed a lawsuit with the Ohio Supreme Court in April 2010 after it was denied records from the Transition Executive Committee and other committees created to provide recommendations on the new county government.
“Today’s ruling by the Ohio Supreme Court gives a ‘blank check’ for those public officials who wish to conduct business behind closed doors,” said ACLU of Ohio Executive Director Christine Link. “It was no secret that the recommendations formed by the committees and vetted by the Transition Executive Committee were going to be given great weight in the transition to a new government. The committees were aiding the smooth transition of county government, and that is undeniably the people’s business.”
“Politicians should not be able to escape accountability by claiming a group is only advisory. Masking committees under the guise of ‘private volunteers,’ does not change the fact that the people should have full and complete access to them,” added Link.
The ACLU issued its original records request on February 17, 2010. It received records from the Transition Advisory Group (TAG), which was created by the charter to oversee the transition. However, the county contended that the other various workgroups and committees did not have to turn over records because they were not “public bodies.”
In the lawsuit, the ACLU contended that Cuyahoga County officials have been intertwined with the transition process since it began. Nearly every committee charged with revising the charter had a county employee assigned as a co-chair. In addition, the county provided substantial technical assistance such as a website, data retention, and management of the transition’s social networking sites.
“State sunshine laws are supposed to protect the people against corruption and secrecy. Unfortunately, if the courts continue to carve out exceptions, they will lose their meaning and leave the people defenseless against wrongdoing,” Link concluded.