By Rory Ryan
Publisher and Owner
The Highland County Press
 
It’s time that the state of Ohio does away with its archaic public records laws and its so-called Sunshine Laws.
 
In fact, it is past time.
 
Let’s face it: You – as voters and taxpayers – do not need to know what your elected office holders are up to. It’s none of your business. Really. Just trust them. They know best.
 
And with solid Republican majorities across the board – as in the Ohio House, the Ohio Senate, the Ohio governor’s office, the state attorney general’s office, the state auditor’s office, the state treasurer’s office, the secretary of state’s office, and the all-knowing Ohio Supreme Court – why waste this golden opportunity?
 
The House and Senate ought to co-author a bill to put an end to all of the state’s public records laws. Pronto and forthwith. Get the party on board. Grand and Old as it may – or may not – be.
 
In fact, the GOP can accomplish this grand scheme without a single Democrat vote. Their gerrymandered majority is that tight.
 
For more than 20 years, I have written those obligatory newspaper editorials and columns in support of the public’s right to their own information. I’ve written the Sunshine Week columns every March, even though in Ohio the sun doesn’t shine until May or June. (Some places, of course, it never shines.) I have championed the public’s right to their public records for a long, long time. But I was wrong. Public records are none of your business. Period. 
 
Yes, yes, yes. You paid for them. And you paid people to make them available under Ohio law. But, really. Who are we, as members of the taxpaying public, to seek your records? The nerve.
 
The availability of public records is, of course, a relatively simple concept. Records are kept and maintained by public officials in order that members of the public may have access to said records. The concept is simple; until someone complicates it for no good reason.
 
Most of the time – if we have honest and competent public officials – our public records are not too difficult to access. (Not that we should ever want to access them. See “the nerve” above.)
 
It used to work this way: Need to know how much the mayor or the police chief make? Call the city auditor and ask. Curious about the county commissioners’ salary? Ask the county auditor. Want to know how much a public school superintendent or principal earns? Call the district treasurer. Want a listing of public office holders? Call the elections board.
 
These are simple requests and there’s absolutely no reason to withhold or delay the information.
 
Or is there? Glad you asked. The Ohio Revised Code addresses also denial of public record requests: (3) If a request is ultimately denied, in part or in whole, the public office or the person responsible for the requested public record shall provide the requester with an explanation, including legal authority, setting forth why the request was denied. If the initial request was provided in writing, the explanation also shall be provided to the requester in writing. The explanation shall not preclude the public office or the person responsible for the requested public record from relying upon additional reasons or legal authority in defending an action commenced under division (C) of this section. (See http://codes.ohio.gov/orc/149.43)
 
Of course, maybe asking for public records is simply bad manners. Maybe we ought to have absolute trust in all public officials all the time. From the local level, to the state level, to the federal level. (There's certainly never been any documented wrongdoing by a public official, has there? Never mind.)
 
It’s taken me a long, long time to reach this conclusion. But they know what’s best for all of us. After all, we’re the … er, voters who put them in office, aren’t we? The more I think about it, the more I think that Ohio Auditor Dave Yost and Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine ought to lead the charge in abolishing Ohio’s public records laws.
 
Why, you ask?
 
Well, let’s look at what these two Republican state officeholders have to say – in their own words.
 
From Auditor Yost at http://www.daveyost.com/about/
 
My Pledge
 
To fulfill my duty to you I pledge:
 
• To conduct myself with fairness, independence and integrity;
 
• To hold myself, my staff and audited governments to high standards of which every Ohioan can be proud;
 
• To review the collection and expenditure of taxpayer dollars protecting against fraud, misuse and waste;
 
• To assist every Ohioan in understanding and reviewing the duties and operations of their governments; and,
 
• To put the United States and Ohio constitutions and the duties of my office above the loyalties of any outside interests.
 
I’m certain Auditor Yost knows best. (He’s a Republican, too. Praise be!) He may be the next Ohio attorney general, too, if all goes according to plan.
 
Surely, he knows more about the conflict of interest provisions in Ohio R.C. 102.03(D), (E) and (F) than I do. Those provisions state:
 
(D) No public official or employee shall use or authorize the use of the authority or influence of office or employment to secure anything of value or the promise or offer of anything of value that is of such a character as to manifest a substantial and improper influence upon the public official or employee with respect to that person’s duties;
 
(E) No public official or employee shall solicit or accept anything of value that is of such a character as to manifest a substantial and improper influence upon the public official or employee with respect to that person’s duties;
 
(F) No person shall promise or give to a public official or employee anything of value that is of such a character as to manifest a substantial and improper influence upon the public official or employee with respect to that person’s duties.
 
Nice words. As pointless as they are.
 
In Nov. 15, 2014 letters to Ohio Auditor Dave Yost and Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, I wrote:
 
As the publisher and owner of The Highland County Press, a taxpayer in the city of Hillsboro, and a resident of the state of Ohio, I am seeking assistance from your office.
 
For background, on June 10, 2014, I initiated a public records request to an elected city official regarding the city’s receipt of an “anonymous” check of $78,168.64. The check was received on the afternoon of New Year’s Eve 2013 during a lame-duck session of the Hillsboro City Council. A receipt (No. 778420) from the mayor's office, on the "received from" line, indicates "Anonymous." No address is written on the address line. Under the "for" line, it is written: "Parks & Recreation @ (sic) Mayors (sic) Discretion." Highlighted in red is "Project #143201." In the "how paid" line, there is an entry next to "check" with #1002.
  
My initial request – and subsequent requests – to an elected city officeholder were referred to a political appointee.
 
It is the opinion of some legal minds who are familiar with the situation, that the check itself meets the standards as outlined in Ohio Revised Code 149.43. I have asked the longtime county auditor if he considers the check to be a public record. He has answered in the affirmative. Nonetheless, the city has refused to provide a copy of the check or any other identification of the donor – at least to this newspaper.
 
I can only trust that the city knows best – and if it’s detrimental to the city’s general well-being to release this secret information – well, they surely won’t release it.

Or have they already released it?
 
On June 9, 2015, another “newspaper,” which rents office space from the Hillsboro mayor, reported that (in August 2014), it “requested and received from the city a copy of the letter from the donor which included the man’s name.”
 
Isn’t that special?
 
So, the city is not opposed to releasing certain records, after all. It’s just a bit selective as to whom the records are released.
 
I’m sure they know best. No worries.
 
In the second week of June 2015, I made two requests (follow-ups from 2014 requests for public records) for the same letter as referenced by the mayor’s tenant on June 9, 2015. The requests were sent via email to the city’s records custodian, safety and service director, law director and president of council.
 
To date, there has been no response. It's been 10 days. Not only has the city failed to respond, it also has failed to "provide the requester with an explanation, including legal authority, setting forth why the request was denied. If the initial request was provided in writing, the explanation also shall be provided to the requester in writing."
 
I’m sure they know best.
 
Without making any determinations or accusations whatsoever regarding the $78,168.64 (a rather curious total, to be sure), many Hillsboro residents are similarly curious as how any would-be arm of legal enforcement or oversight could possibly weigh in on the conflict-of-interest provisions in state law if no one knows how the public officeholder came to have $78,168.64 to use at his "discretion."
 
Quite possibly, there is no conflict. In other words, I’m sure they know best.
 
But it is at least remotely possible that this supposedly anonymous donation has the appearance of a quid pro quo, a trade-off, if you will. But that’s none of our business, is it? They know best. 
 
With respect to the mission statement of Auditor Yost’s office – “The Auditor of State's office strives for clean, accountable and efficient governments for those we serve, the people of Ohio,” I am tempted to request (again) that a representative from the Auditor of State’s Office initiates a public records request to the city of Hillsboro for the identification of the Dec. 31, 2013 donor of $78,168.64, and that the office makes this information available.
 
Granted, the Hillsboro city government already has, according to a June 9, 2015 “newspaper” report, made this available to an employee of one of the mayor’s renters.
 
Yeah, yeah. They know best. Etc. Etc.
 
Of course, this is the same “newspaper” that recently published that an audit of the Highland County Convention and Visitors Bureau “was very likely conducted in the first place because of complaints from the usual sources.”
 
Nice try, but no. This is either a case of a very willfully ignorant writer or one who is trying to be cleverly disingenuous. Probably a little bit of both.
 
Did that same writer mention that the state audit had a little “finding for recovery” against the Highland County CVB and that money had to be repaid? Never mind. They know best.
 
For the record, the Highland County CVB, as a public entity, has regularly scheduled audits by the Ohio Auditor of State and has had for years. Don’t take my word for it. Call the Ohio auditor. Please. Do your homework.
 
That said, here is one really easy question for anyone in city government:
 
• Why not make this information on the “anonymous” $78,168.64 check available to all of Hillsboro’s residents and taxpayers and not just one of the mayor’s constant apologists and business tenants?
 
No. Let’s withdraw the question. Here’s a better idea: Why doesn’t the Ohio Republican majority seize the day and do away with all Open Records Laws, Sunshine Laws and, while they’re at it, toss the entire Ohio Revised Code into Lake Erie?
 
Given the state’s lack of enforcement on public records laws, one answer and subsequent action would have about the same impact as the other.
 
In other words, when a city mayor receives $78,168.64 (right to the last red cent) to use at his “discretion,” it’s none of your damned business.
 
One last thing: How many Ohio Republicans have criticized President Obama for his use of executive privilege? Didn’t Obama once promise to have the most “transparent” administration in history? Seems to me that a more local government has talked a lot about “transparency,” too.
 
Talk is cheap. Executive authority is costly.
 
If there’s nothing to hide, speak up.
 
Never mind.
 
They know best. I am beginning to see the light.
 
And, much more importantly, so are some members of Hillsboro City Council. That is a good thing.
 
Rory Ryan is publisher and owner of The Highland County Press.