Once again, Sunshine Week has arrived. This is the week advocates, activists, academics, the news media, and others call attention to the importance of laws that keep government records and official meetings open to the public. You are forgiven if you were previously unaware of Sunshine Week. After all, you are probably distracted by constant attacks on reproductive rights. Or perplexed by Ohio's ever-growing mass incarceration numbers. Perhaps voting and elections issues have you worried. Maybe your issue is police misconduct. Or you are concerned with the actions of your city council, mayor, or county commissioners. What is important to understand is the role of public records and open meetings in these issues and all others.
So, let's celebrate open records and open meetings. But let's also be mindful of attempts to restrict your right to know.
You see, Ohio law allows you access to law enforcement records so you can see if that bad cop was disciplined in the past or has complaints against him. You may contact your local board of elections to see how they allocate voting machines across your area. You can pore through data from our state’s prison system to see how many people are incarcerated and for what crimes. You can attend meetings of your city council where council members are legally required to deliberate and make decisions in public. No surprise, Ohio's sunshine laws do not always work as intended. Many government officials remain woefully uninformed about your right to request and receive public documents and data. Others try to deliberately hide information from citizens, fearing backlash from exposure of inner workings and internal communications. Sometimes it appears a decision by city council or county commissioners came out of thin air despite the legal mandate to conduct such business in public.
For more information on Ohio's Sunshine Laws, make sure to check out the ACLU of Ohio publication "Public Records & Open Meetings: A Guide for Activists"* and the ACLU of Ohio and the Ohio Coalition for Open Government's webinar “We're Living in the Matrix” Presentation.
And so Sunshine Week also serves to warn us about ongoing attempts to weaken laws and policies meant to keep us informed. Nowhere is that more apparent than at the Ohio Statehouse where lawmakers continually introduce and pass bills affecting your ability to hold elected officials accountable, research how government works, and monitor everything from government spending to hiring practices. So, let's celebrate open records and open meetings. But let's also be mindful of attempts to restrict your right to know.
Gary Daniels is the Chief Lobbyist with the ACLU of Ohio.
*Note: "Public Records & Open Meetings: A Guide for Activists" has been updated and replaced with "Keep an Eye on Your Government: The Activist's How-to-Guide," and it can be read below.