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Open Book

Letter From Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost

Welcome to the first of our quarterly newsletters about public records and open meetings.

President Abraham Lincoln characterized our government as “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

In short, he meant that the government belongs to the people. The business of government is the people’s business. Because the government exists to serve the people, the workings of government must be open to public scrutiny, subject only to strictly construed exceptions that serve the public interest or are essential to the protection of personal privacy. 

And that is the fundamental principle that informs our laws mandating public records and open meetings, our so-called “Sunshine Laws.”

The nickname is rooted in a quotation usually attributed to the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, who wrote that “sunlight is the best disinfectant.” Justice Brandeis understood that government corruption is fostered and thrives in secrecy and darkness. If the public cannot see the government’s records and is barred from the meetings during which government bodies make their decisions, corruption and misfeasance can flourish and grow. There is no accountability.

But public records and open meetings act like sunshine, exposing the activities of government officials for all to see, allowing the people to hold their officials fully accountable.

When I was a newspaper reporter, I treasured Ohio’s Sunshine Laws because they helped me stay on top of the doings of government. It would be a mistake, though, to view our Sunshine Laws as a tool only for journalists. The Sunshine Laws are tools for every citizen.

If someone wants to know what her local school board or village council is doing, what its priorities are, how it is spending her tax money, she can look at public records and attend open meetings to find out. If a citizen is seeking election to a public office, he can find out what the incumbent has done in the job. If residents are concerned about the environmental impact of some new business or development project, they can look at the permit applications submitted to government officials and examine the decisions government officials made about those permits. 

As public officials, we should ensure that our decisions and actions are transparent to the public we serve. We must remember that the records we hold do not belong to us; they belong to the people we serve.

With limited exceptions, the people’s right of access to government records and to meetings of public bodies is sweeping. We cannot require people to state a reason for their desire to see a document or to attend a meeting. We can’t even require that they identify themselves. 

Nor should we regard a demand for public records or access to an open meeting as an imposition or an annoyance. Most government officials sincerely want to do their jobs honestly and effectively. A government official who is corrupt, lazy or ineffective brings disrepute on all other government officials. As conscientious public officials, we have an interest in curbing corruption and rooting it out when it occurs. So we should welcome the cleansing effect of the sunshine.

Obeying the Sunshine Laws is part of our duty as public officials to provide honest and ethical services to our employers, the people of Ohio.

To advance that purpose, we are launching this quarterly newsletter. We hope to make it useful for a broad audience, including:
  • Attorneys who represent and advise local governments on Sunshine Law compliance.
  • Employees and officers of local governments who are primarily responsible for handling public- records requests or conducting open meetings.
  • Legal counsel who represent clients seeking to exercise their rights under Ohio’s Sunshine Laws.
  • The news media.
  • Any citizen interested in transparent governance.

Our aim is to compile and analyze complaints and issues that arise and developments that occur in relation to the Sunshine Laws. We also plan to provide information on the judicial interpretations of the relevant statutes.

In short, we hope to make this the go-to source for all matters related to open government in Ohio.

We hope you find the newsletter informative, and we welcome your comments and suggestions. 

AG Dave Yost Signature


Dave Yost
Ohio Attorney General