State’s ban on ‘Sunshine Audit’ wrong

Ohioans should not have to bear the expense and aggravation of going to court to force government officials to comply with the open records law, state Auditor Dave Yost believes. To make it easier to get documents, Yost announced a month ago he was establishing a “Sunshine Audit” program.

But for every champion in government of the public’s right to know, there are dozens of opponents – officials who see it as a good thing that Ohioans sometimes can be denied access to information about how their tax dollars are being spent.

With speed and efficiency seldom seen in government, some legislators became poised to shut down Yost’s program before it gets off the ground.

Yost has a simple idea: Currently, if state agencies refuse to hand over documents sought by members of the public, recourse is limited. Those seeking the documents can go to court, but that can be expensive in both time and money. Most people just give up trying to get government records.

Public officials know that. They understand that stonewalling, even in the knowledge they are violating the open records law, often can turn away requests for information.

Yost’s “Sunshine Audit” plan is that people whose requests for records from state agencies are rejected can go to his office rather than the courts for relief. If lawyers on the auditor’s staff decide officials have violated the open records law, they can issue non-compliance audit findings that may be enforceable in court.

It certainly is not a perfect system – but at least it provides the public with a method of pressuring public officials on rejected requests for documents.

Yost’s program would deal primarily with state agencies, including institutions of higher learning, because state Attorney General Mike DeWine already has an open records mediation system for local governments. But Yost has said that in cases not resolved by DeWine’s office, the “Sunshine Audit” plan could be used.

Some members of the state House of Representatives took steps to stop Yost by briefly inserting a provision in the state budget bill that would have killed the “Sunshine Audit” plan before it got off the ground.

Thankfully, some other legislators realized the error of their ways and quickly removed the provision from the budget bill this week.

Still, it appears the ban is not dead yet. Some lawmakers said the wording was removed simply to give them more time to assess the implications of the issue, and it could resurface, largely because some legislators say they do not believe handling open records disputes should be part of the auditor’s duties.

Yet Yost has taken action in other situations not normally viewed as duties of the auditor’s office. For example, it was his office that revealed cheating among some school districts on their attendance reports to the state.

A tip-off about the lawmakers’ true concern is in the fact that, while attempting to rein in Yost, they have offered no alternative method of helping ensure the public has access to government records.

Ohio’s open records law is a strong one – but effective only as long as government officials are under pressure to obey it. What’s wrong with giving the public another tool to accomplish that?