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Monday, October 8th, 2007

Officials undergoing training on new law

By Timothy Cox
Mercer County officials are being trained on compliance with House Bill 9, Ohio's new public records law that became effective in June.
The law also applies to municipal, village and township governments, public school districts and all other public offices. Generally speaking, the law mandates new training on public records issues, stiffens penalties for illegal denial of records requests and sets up new procedures for handling requests.
County commissioners last week authorized two members of their staff to attend an upcoming training session in Columbus. Commissioners will go through their own training during a County Commissioners Association of Ohio conference later this year.
"If somebody wants information, we want to know we're properly trained," Commissioner Jerry Laffin said.
Other county department heads and county employees will go through similar training. County Assistant Prosecutor Amy Ikerd already presented an informational session to county employees, who already are implementing new facets of the law.
In most instances, new amendments to the law increase the burden on public offices to fulfill records requests in an accurate, timely manner.
The law "imposes new requirements on public bodies for training, policy drafting and responding to public records. It also raises the potential liability faced by public bodies when they wrongfully deny public records requests," says an assessment of the new law written by attorneys at Bricker & Eckler, a Columbus law firm regularly used by area governments.
Among the changes the new law makes is that public bodies can now redact some confidential information from records. Previously, if a record contained information that could not be released, none of the document could be released. Public bodies are now required to make the redaction clearly visible or inform the record requester about redactions.
The law also increases the burden on public offices to explain why requests are denied. Public officials must be prepared to back up their denial with the letter of the law and possibly even case law.
Another key change in the law is regarding the cost of copied records. The old law capped the cost at the cost of a copy, generally recognized by courts to be 25 cents per page. The new law, however, allows governments to recoup the entire cost of copying records and requires up front payments from those requesting the records.
Penalties for violating the law also have been stiffened. A requesting person is entitled to statutory damages if the law was violated and if the original request was made in writing to provide proof of the request.
Violators could be fined $100 per day with the maximum penalty capped at $1,000. The 10-day window begins when a requester files court action against a public body. Public bodies also can be held responsible for attorney's fees if found guilty of violating the law.
Other new requirements include a provision that all elected officials - or their designees - receive three hours of training during every term in office.
"The purpose of this requirement is to ensure that at least one employee of each public office is educated appropriately about the office's obligations under the Public Records Act," the Bricker & Eckler analysis of the law says.
Training is to be developed and administered by the Ohio Attorney General's office.
Still another new requirement mandates that all public bodies draft a public records policy and create a poster for public display. The law also sets up new requirements for records commissions and their duties.

Conceal/carry and public records:
Ohio's amended Public Records Act attempts to sort out what has proven to be a sticky issue involving public records and the state's conceal/carry law.
The new law makes it clear that copies of lists of handgun licenses held by county sheriff's offices are prohibited. However, the law also expands journalistic access to view the information.
The old law kept conceal/carry info. confidential but contained a "journalistic access exception" that required sheriffs to disclose certain requested information. The journalistic exception, which remains part of the new law, required sheriffs to disclose the name, county of residence and date of birth for each person issued a license.
The new law allows journalists to view - but not copy - the same information. Also, the new law expands the journalistic exception to also include the same information about people who have had their conceal/carry permits revoked or suspended by the county sheriff.
The law allows journalists to find out information about specific individuals for news coverage but prevents a widespread reprinting of the entire list of licensees.
- Timothy Cox
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