Ohio's Attorney General is offering to have his staff mediate disputes between local governments and citizens who are demanding they turn over public records. A.G. Mike DeWine talks about his offer in this interview with statehouse correspondent Bill Cohen.
MD: Well we've really seen a problem. When you have a local newspaper, sometimes, or private citizens--radio, who want information...public information and the agency, the township, or the school board--whatever the local governmental unit is doesn't think they're entitled to it. And this thing can drag on for a long time. It can be very expensive; the news media that wants the information sometimes has to hire a lawyer. So, what we've set up is a voluntary program where the Attorney General's office will mediate this. And frankly we have experts where what they do every single day is related to public disclosure of public documents. And they know what's legal and what's not and they know what has to be disclosed and what does not have to be disclosed. So I think having us mediate it keeps it out of court, keeps the lawyer fees down, saves taxpayers' dollars and gets information out quicker to the public.
BC: You've seen these disputes over the years--overall who's usually in the right? Is it the citizens requesting the records or is it the government agency saying "You can't have these records because they're not really public?"
MD:Usually the citizens are right or the media is right. Sometimes the problem is that the media or the private individual makes the request so broad that it would cost a fortune and take a whole bunch of time for the public entity to come up with this information. I think one of the things we can bring to this is to try to narrow the request. What do you really need? What are you looking for? And I think when you do that it makes it easier to get the information. It saves everybody a lot of time. The information comes out quicker and it saves the taxpayers a lot of money for some government entity not to search for a bunch of information that maybe is not needed at all.
That's Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine. Although his office serves as a legal advisor to state government agencies, it does not represent local governments and schools. That's why DeWine figures there's no conflict of interest in having his staffers mediate public records disputes on the local level.