Legislators make late changes to open public document bill

By Andrew Welsh-Huggins The Associated Press

COLUMBUS – A disappointing conclusion to a year’s worth of work on an open records bill could foreshadow a continuing legislative fight over access to public documents in Ohio.

Passage of Rep. Scott Oelslager’s records’ bill last week ended on a sour note after Republicans and Democrats teamed up to add a last-minute change restricting reporters’ access to the names of people allowed to carry hidden guns.

Oelslager, a Canton Republican, said he had five minutes’ notice that the change was coming. Gov. Bob Taft says he would veto the bill, which goes now to the Senate, if it reached him with that restriction.

The change on Wednesday came the same day that House Republicans signaled they are preparing new legislation that could close several records.

That sets up the possibility of joint bills moving through the legislature – one making it easier to get records, one making it harder.

At issue are recommendations to shield economic development deals that local governments offer companies documents used in executive sessions and resumes of candidates for public office jobs.

In addition, lawmakers are debating ways to remove Social Security numbers from all public documents and hand control over all judicial records to the Ohio Supreme Court.

Rep. Bill Seitz, a Cincinnati Republican, vowed to take up these issues soon, “on another battlefield, on another day, in another bill.”

“There’s very narrow exemptions that need to be recognized and we will recognize them if I have anything to say about it,” Seitz said.

Oelslager, a longtime open records advocate, said he hopes to remove the gun restrictions in the Senate and deal with Seitz’ restrictions as they come. Seitz also fought Oelslager over the issue of awarding attorneys fees in open records cases, one of the issues that has delayed the open records bill.

“Philosophically, we’re just on different wavelengths on this,” Oelslager said.

Ohio law currently shields economic deals the state offers companies, and townships want the same protection for local pitches.

Michael Cochran, a lobbyist for Ohio townships, cited a northeast Ohio case in which publicity about a township’s offer led to a neighboring city trumping the deal with a better offer.

Townships and counties also want to prohibit the release of documents prepared for executive sessions by elected councils.

Making these documents public “can be especially sensitive during labor negotiations or when price comparisons or the condition of land or structures are prepared for the consideration of purchase or sale,” according to documents submitted to lawmakers by the Ohio Municipal League.

Open records advocates fear the effect of such proposals even as lawmakers consider making more documents public.

“It was like vultures hanging around an open records bill trying to find ways to close everything up,” said Fred Gittes, a lawyer representing a coalition of advocacy groups, environmental organizations and unions.