Open-government forecast: Cloudy conditions persistPublished: 3/16/16 @ 12:00
Ohio and the entire United States this week are basking under a common and particularly pleasant-sounding forecast. Advocates of First Amendment freedoms and open access to public information are celebrating Sunshine Week through Saturday.
Truth to tell, however, the brightest observation we can muster up to describe current conditions on the open-government horizon would be partly cloudy.
Though some illuminating progress has been achieved in recent years toward freer and more unfettered access to public information, clouds still darken the purest and noblest intent of maximum transparency in all public-sector operations.
ABOUT SUNSHINE WEEK
The Sunshine Week observance owes its roots to James Madison, known as the Father of the U.S. Constitution and a primary architect of its Bill of Rights. The week coincides annually with his birthday, which is today. The observance, now in its 11th year, has been spearheaded by journalists and news organizations to educate the public about the importance of open government and the dangers of excessive secrecy.
On the sunny side in Ohio, some agencies of state government have been making concerted efforts to maximize open access. Just this week, for example, State Auditor Dave Yost released findings of so-called Sunshine Audits, his initiative to investigate residents’ complaints of inaccessibility to records that are rightfully in the public domain.
Yost’s findings uncovered instances of noncompliance with release of public records in the Ohio Public Employees Retirement System, the Ohio Department of Agriculture, and the city of Beachwood, to name but a few. These and other agencies have therefore been put on notice to more stringently obey the letter of the law.
In addition, state Treasurer Josh Mandel’s online checkbook initiative continues to grow in size and impact. The program now boasts about 500 public entities, including many in the Mahoning Valley, that have jumped online to show taxpayers exactly how their hard-earned tax dollars are being spent on public services and public officials’ salaries.
The ultimate goal is to have the financial transactions of every city, county, township, school district, library district and others online so Ohioans can access the information with a click of the mouse.
Yet even that initiative is not without its shortcomings. As we’ve argued often on this page, clear and transparent online information on the hodgepodge of public pension systems in the state remains incomplete and far from transparent. For example, current law permits the public release of only two pieces of information regarding personnel: one, whether an employee is retired; two, the salary at the time of retirement.
MIXED RESULTS IN LEGISLATURE
In the state Legislature, it’s been only a partly sunny year as well. Some strides toward more stringent accountability were made in 2015 through passage of legislation that has increased transparency of charter school operations and their finances. Charter school operators now are required to share more detailed financial information with the public, but charters still lack the much deeper accountability required of public school systems in Ohio.
The past year, however, has not been without its fair share of disappointments. On the darker side, for example, members of the Vindicator-affiliated News Outlet faced inexcusable delays and stonewalling in attempting to access a variety of records on charter schools in order to complete an extensive and enlightening news series on the quasi-public institutions last year.
State lawmakers also slammed the door completely shut on the limited access to records on concealed-carry permits issued by county sheriffs’ offices throughout the state, despite vocal protestations by this newspaper and other free-press advocates in the state.
This mixed bag of results demonstrates that much more due diligence remains necessary. State officials should continue records audits and training of public officials on abiding by the letter and the spirit of Ohio’s relatively stringent statutes to block government secrecy. For our part, The Vindicator will continue to fight aggressively for all records and data that serve the public’s legitimate right to know.
With continued perseverance by all involved, we trust that future observances of Sunshine Week will be even less clouded in secrecy and chicanery.