Public Has Right to Know

On both sides of the Ohio River, concerns were expressed last week about transparency in local government. Some officials in West Virginia do not understand the law requiring open meetings of government bodies, a state ethics watchdog said. In Ohio, the state auditor reported many municipalities and counties do not have adequate open records policies and practices.

State Ethics Commission Executive Director Joan Parker spent part of a workshop in Wheeling for local government officials discussing the open meetings law. She outlined specific concerns, including the failure of some municipal councils, county commissions and boards of education to be specific about some “executive sessions” closed to the public.

Ohio Auditor Dave Yost last week released information about a review of public records policies and procedures in 20 counties and cities. Yost said about 40 percent of those checked had “weaknesses” such as failure to retain copies of email messages.

Both West Virginia and Ohio have strong laws requiring public access to government meetings and to both electronic and paper records. While it is true many of the lapses in compliance are due to local officials’ unfamiliarity with the laws, a substantial number of violations – against both the letter and spirit of the statutes – is intentional.

Too often, government officials consider the public – and your representatives, the press – to be annoyances to be brushed off without disclosing any more information than can be avoided. Meetings are closed not out of necessity, but simply because officials don’t want the public to know what is being discussed. Records are withheld or their release is delayed for the same reason.

Parker and Yost are right: Government officials need better training and up-to-date policies on transparency. But some also need to be reminded that the public has a right to know how its business is being handled.