National publications like the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal have recently considered news of The Vindicator’s closing, and suggest generally that local democracies will go only as far as their local papers will carry them. These articles assume that if the local news dies, so does an informed citizenry.
Local news organizations unearth and disseminate truths that unorganized groups simply cannot. Having bright, articulate, experienced and credentialed journalists on staff give them a natural advantage; they know where to look.
However, there’s something to be said for a curious citizen with a smartphone, a pen, a pad of paper, and a Twitter account. By leveraging the provisions of Ohio’s public records laws with the wealth of public information already available on the internet, democracy just might have a chance.
Ohio’s Public Records Laws
Section 149.43 of the Ohio Revised Code authorizes any person, at all reasonable times during regular business hours, to inspect public records.
As defined therein, public records include “records kept by any public office, including, but not limited to, state, county, city, village, township and school district units.”
However, this same law specifically lists items that are NOT public records subject to review, such as medical records, information regarding children under protective custody, law enforcement investigatory records, and the like.
Moreover, the same law provides that if a person is aggrieved by the failure of a public office to promptly prepare and make available the public record, that person may commence a court action in which they may be rewarded monetary damages (up to a maximum of $1,000) and attorney’s fees.
Notably, the above requests can be made by any person, and need not be made in any particular form. But in my own experience, written requests are almost always more quickly fulfilled than those made verbally, especially if the written request is sent directly to the person who has access to the documents in question.
Consider calling the office first to determine if they even possess the information you need, and then taking note of the person or persons responsible for those records. And of course, be respectful, and be patient.
Pounding the table and threatening a lawsuit will not likely motivate the clerk to fulfill your request more quickly.
In sum, the importance of investigative journalism cannot be overstated. But that responsibility should not fall unilaterally on local news outlets, especially in light of the economic challenges they face.
And even if you do not have a political axe to grind, you might just find that your local government (or a state agency) has data that could be valuable to your business.
The good news is you are specifically authorized by law to access it. They may even want to help you.
So pick up the phone and jump-start your journalism career. Let us know how we can help.