Agency flouts open-records law in refusing to release information to researchers

Columbus Dispatch - October 24, 2005
   

Not in the Public Interest
The Columbus Dispatch 

How many working-class Ohio families rely on public aid, such
as Medicaid, energy assistance, food stamps and other programs?

A state agency has interfered with a valid research effort to answer this question.

Policy Matters Ohio asked for employer names and addresses of such welfare recipients, but was rebuffed by the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.

The Cleveland-based research group wants to determine if employers’ benefit reductions are prompting some working Ohioans to seek public assistance to supplement their safety net.

The department last month refused to disclose what clearly should be part of the public record. The agency argued that the group’s request was overly broad and that the information is “inextricably
intertwined with confidential client data.” Job and Family Services claims it would need to create a software program to extract the requested information.

Especially troubling is that the department cited a Sept. 7 Ohio Supreme Court ruling in its refusal to comply.

The high court, by a 7-0 vote in a case brought by The Dispatch, held that public employees’ home addresses are not part of the public record.

Justice Alice Robie Resnick, writing for the court, emphasized that the decision should be construed narrowly, cautioning public officials not to “place great weight on this case as precedent in unrelated
contests.”

But that’s just what Job and Family Services did, only a short time after the high court’s ruling on the privacy of public employees’ residential data. The department’s attorneys used the court’s wording as reason to conceal the names and addresses of businesses employing aid recipients.

Such roadblocks to the free flow of information will continue until the Ohio legislature clears up the ambiguity about this perceived loophole in open-records law.

Job and Family Services’ position probably can’t withstand a legal challenge. But legal challenges take time and money, and in the interim, the agency can blow off this reasonable request.

Research by academics, activists, interest groups and the news media serves the public by generating a wealth of information on which policy decisions are made. Policy Matters Ohio, a liberal-leaning group, contends that “information on employers whose work force relies on public benefits” is pertinent to its research and is available in at least 18 other states.

Public bodies too often fail to comply with records requests. Sometimes, the requester has to file court action to obtain data that should be readily available.

Although a desire for secrecy is sometimes the reason, these refusals also occur because the taxpayer funded officeholders would rather not be bothered with records requests.

Public access to governmental information is one of the pillars of democracy. Ohio’s law and courts should require government to provide the widest possible access to public records.

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