Ohio journalists are warning that the state is headed toward a "total eclipse" of the public's right to know what government officials are doing after Gov. John Kasich last week signed a measure that significantly limits civil penalties for destroying public documents.
The new law limits fines against a public agency to $10,000 per case and restricts attorney's fees to the same amount. There previously was no limit on damages.
The Columbus Dispatch reported that public agencies frequently reject requests for public records. It said the Kasich administration, for example, rejected its request for three e-mails related to the Ohio State University football scandal because it was "overly broad."
"Similar occurrences are increasing at all levels of Ohio government," the newspaper reported.
State Sen. Bill Seitz, a Republican from Cincinnati who co-sponsored the bill, said the measure was intended to stem abuse of records requests by parties who might request documents they knew didn't exist in hope of a big payday in court. He noted that criminal penalties for such destruction weren't affected.
The Blade of Toledo said Sunday there was "no evidence" of such abuse, reporting that "(s)ince the state's public-records law took effect in 1985, there have been only a few big judgments for official violations."
"It seems at least as likely that some government agencies would regard the meager financial penalties in the bill as an acceptable cost of keeping public business secret, and that some potential plaintiffs would be dissuaded from bringing valid lawsuits because they couldn't afford to pursue them," the newspaper said in an editorial.
The Dispatch agreed in an editorial Sunday that the measure is a big blow for open government:
"In the spirit of our nation celebrating its independence this July 4 weekend, maybe more public officials who believe in transparency could sponsor changes that would make more records open to taxpayers who pay the bills."
What do you think? Do public officials need more protection from records requests? Let us know in the comments.