Ohio reporter successfully gains university presidential records release through claims court

OHIO—A reporter for The Athens News has successfully obtained documents from Ohio University concerning the semifinal candidates for the university presidency after filing a complaint with the Ohio Court of Claims.

Conor Morris filed the complaint Jan. 19 after the university’s legal office ignored his request for the names and CVs of the semifinalists for over a month.

Morris and attorneys for Ohio University, assistant attorneys general Reid T. Caryer and Halli Brownfield Watson, entered mediation Feb. 8 under supervision from clerk of the court Mark Reed.

This was Morris’ first time using the complaint process established by Senate Bill 321, which went into effect Sept. 28, 2016. SB 321 provides an expedited process for individuals to challenge a denied public records request by opting for a mediation process through the Ohio Court of Claims, avoiding the need for individuals to have to file a lawsuit.

“Prior to this program being implemented there were a few other programs in Ohio, but I only got to use one of them through the State Auditor’s Office, and I wasn’t particularly impressed with it,” Morris said. “This program fixed my issues with the last one where you’re not in one on one conversation with the party you’ve been aggrieved by, but you are talking to a trained, experience mediator who is an expert in public records law.”

When he realized the university would be represented by state attorneys, Morris became more anxious about the case. However, he found that having an experienced mediator meant that he did not need to be.

“I came prepared with case law prepped and everything, and didn’t really need to do that. So it’s really more accessible to the public and members of the media who may not know the public records law, more so than I thought, so that’s great,” Morris said.

Ohio public records law requires that state agencies provide copies of all public documents to the public, including records created by private companies for the business of a public university. Agencies are required to redact any information subject to attorney-client privilege or protected by state or federal law.

Morris believes that the new complaints process makes it easier to clarify the law on cases where state agency’s mistakenly withhold public records.

“It will make it easier for when you have a dispute,” he said. “So when you make a request, typically agencies are on the side of transparency, and they want to give you things – they’re doing right. But if you keep having issues with the same agency, the process can really help you because if the agency keeps making mistakes, keeps mistakenly thinking that what you believe is public record isn’t, then they can be corrected because the mediator knows so much about the law.”

Despite getting the records Feb. 5, Morris ultimately decided to not publish the names of the semifinalists. This decision was cemented by the fact that three of the four remaining finalists removed themselves from contention, and the university announced its new president, Duane Nellis, on Feb. 22.

“I initially was on the side of probably publishing their names, mainly because I feel personally as a reporter that if you’re applying for a public institution, the highest paid and the most visible job at that institution, you should be prepared for that public record,” Morris said.

“But, it was such a moot point by the time I got the records, I decided there really wasn’t a point in my publishing these people’s names, and there might be some harm if their institutions were very touchy about that subject,” he explained, referring to the candidates’ seeking new employment. “So in the interest of not causing any further strife and respecting the university’s position that these people were expecting confidentiality, I decided to not publish.”

Despite choosing to not publish the names and details from the candidates’ CVs, Morris believes seeing the complaint through was worthwhile.

“My issue throughout this entire process has been the university not complying with the request in a reasonable amount of time which is what the state statute requires,” Morris said. “And not only not responding, but flat out refusing to. That irked me so much, that I really did want to make a public example of both this process at work and the fact that they didn’t comply with the records law as I see it.”

Looking ahead, Morris hopes that this experience with the new public records request complaints process will encourage the university to be more forthcoming with public records requests.

“Sometimes this university will get me something quickly, sometimes they’ll really drag their feet,” Morris said. “It really does seem like the times they are dragging their feet are the times when it would not benefit them in any way, shape or form to release the documents. So, I really hope they’ve learned from this kind of lengthy process that it’s going to be a waste of their time and resources if they continue to stonewall requests.”

SPLC staff writer Jessica Kelham-Hohler can be reached by email or (202) 974-6317

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