Open government experts say secrecy endangers public

SANDUSKY There has been an assault on open government in the General Assembly that threatens to crea
Matt Westerhold
May 24, 2010

 

SANDUSKY

There has been an assault on open government in the General Assembly that threatens to create two classes of citizens -- those with access to information and those who do not have access.

That's what public records experts contend, and they say it goes to the heart of what makes for good government.

"It's the proverbial slippery slope," said Frank Deaner, director of the Ohio Newspaper Association and a lobbyist in the General Assembly. "It puts one class in a position to tell the other whether it can have access to information."

Deaner said politics is fueling numerous efforts to enact legislation that exempts information from public disclosure, including the state's concealed weapons law.

The weapons law prohibits members of the public from getting information about who has been granted licenses by the state to carry concealed handguns.

Other recent exemptions that have been pressed by state lawmakers include limiting access to coroner's reports and preliminary records, in addition to other documents and information about foster families.

"It's been a continual erosion in the definition of public records during the last three sessions of the General Assembly," Deaner said. "Post-911 security worries and public fear regarding ID theft are being used as excuses to exempt information."

Tim Smith, an attorney who is a public records expert and a journalism professor at Kent State University, shares Deaner's concerns. He said without public disclosure there's no way to assure programs are being properly administered.

"You can't automatically rely on government officials to carefully follow the requirements of the law," said Smith, referring to the concealed weapons law.

The CCW law exempts the disclosure of all information about the application process and criminal backgrounds of anyone who applies for license to carry a concealed handgun. It also exempts the names of those who have been granted a permit.

"If the records are private, I have to rely on the sheriff to make sure he's not making any mistakes," Smith said.

Deaner is concerned the trend to restrict access to public documents will continue and said open government is the basis for democracy.

"Where's the point when political leaders and the public come back to the realization that we live in a democracy?" he asked. "There's a little bit of pain that goes with that."

Supporters of the secrecy provision in the concealed handguns law contend making the information available will enable criminals to target them to steal their guns.

Gov. Ted Strickland's office told the Register Ohioans are better off not knowing who is licensed to carry handguns for that reason and also because criminals would then know who is not armed and those individuals could be targeted.

But Deaner said access to information is a bedrock of good government.

"It's not public information that causes harm to people, it's people who choose to do harm against others," he said. "If someone is motivated to do something like that, they're going to find a way to do it without the benefit of public records."

Staff reporter Chauncey Alcorn contributed to this story.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The decision to make the lists available to readers was made by the Register's managing editor.  All inquiries should be directed to 419-609-5866 or mattwesterhold@sanduskyregister.com

CLICK HERE to view the Erie County A-L concealed carry list.

CLICK HERE to view the Erie County M-Z concealed carry list.

CLICK HERE to view the Huron County concealed carry list.

CLICK HERE to view the Ottawa County concealed carry list.

CLICK HERE to view the Sandusky County concealed carry list.