MARIETTA - A new policy established by Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine could help reduce litigation filed to obtain public records as well as make it easier for government offices to deal with open records requests.
"The Ohio Attorney General's Public Records Mediation Program will protect the rights and interests of both Ohioans and their local officials by helping resolve disputes before parties turn to time consuming and costly litigation," DeWine said in a news release announcing the new initiative.
The program provides an alternative to filing a lawsuit when a public records request is denied by a government agency by offering free mediation services through the attorney general's office.
"So far we've had at least five requests for mediation since the policy started, and we're doing our best to address those issues," said Mark Moretti, spokesman for the attorney general's office in Columbus.
To be eligible for the mediation program, the public record dispute must be with a local city, county, township or other government entity, and both parties in the dispute must agree to the mediation.
City Law Director Paul Bertram III said in general the mediation program seems like a good idea.
"It should be helpful for smaller towns, villages and townships that may not understand the public records law in come cases," he said. "But everyone working in a public office should attend the annual public records training offered by the attorney general's office. That helps tremendously."
For Marietta, sued by James Verhovec of Uhrichsville over a public records request, the program is a year too late, Bertram said.
"But if the request is to mine for records in order to obtain forfeiture from the city, the interest is in money, and not in mediation (anyway)," he said.
The suit involves a request for approximately 3,300 cable TV survey cards returned to the city by customers in 1999. Verhovec is seeking $1,000 for each document not produced (the maximum allowed by state law), which translates to an approximate total of $3.3 million.
The city of Marietta has already spent more than $250,000 on the suit.
Verhovec also filed similar suits against the City of Uhrichsville and the Village of Dennison at the same time.
The Marietta lawsuit is scheduled for trial in Washington County Common Pleas Judge Susan Boyer's court this month.
Washington County Prosecutor Jim Schneider said the attorney general's mediation program makes sense.
"I think it's a good idea that could help eliminate public records lawsuits," he said. "But I would think this could stretch the attorney general's staff pretty thin."
Dennis Hetzel, executive director of the Ohio Newspaper Association, said the mediation program announcement was welcome news.
"We had talked with the attorney general's office about this concept a year ago," he said. "And a similar mediation process was nearly introduced during the last state legislative session."
Hetzel said Ohio has been among a minority of states that do not have an appeal process-other than obtaining a lawyer-when a public records request is denied.
"I think this has been the biggest single flaw in Ohio's open records law," he said. "Most states have some type of appeal process."
Hetzel said he would prefer the process used in Kentucky where an actual legal opinion can be obtained on the issue at no cost.
"But this is still a good move for Ohio," he said.
The mediation program should benefit both local citizens and government offices, Hetzel added.
"When there's a dispute the government office doesn't want to hire a lawyer, either," he said. "This can also relieve some of the pressure on both parties if they're acting in good faith."
Hetzel said the mediation process may also be an attempt by the attorney general to deal with "gadflies" who may make voluminous open records requests that require a lot of time and effort from government staffers.
Moretti said mediation requests can be submitted by filling out a form on the attorney general's website, www.ohioattorneygeneral.gov, or by contacting the public records unit at 1-888-958-5088.