County ombudsman office is subject to records act
OHIO–The Citizens of Cuyahoga County Ombudsman Office, a private, non-profit corporation, supported by public funds and established to assist citizens in resolving complaints against county government agencies, is subject to the Public Records Act, the state Supreme Court in Columbus ruled in late October.
In a 4-to-3 ruling, the court ordered the disclosure of juvenile criminal justice records, including records pertaining to the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court and records regarding alleged child abuse by staff members of the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Detention Center.
Gerald Strothers, Jr., a citizen who said he was concerned about allegations of child abuse by juvenile detention center staff, contacted the Ombudsman Office in June 1996 seeking release of the records. After the Ombudsman Office refused to release the records, Strothers filed suit in August 1996 in the court of appeals in Cleveland. After that court ruled against him, Strothers, acting as his own attorney, brought the suit before the state Supreme Court.
The high court held that the Ombudsman Office is a “public office” because it receives support from public taxation, performs a public service and is in a “partnership” with the county commissioners.
The Ombudsman Office argued that if it was a public office, the documents requested were nonetheless exempt from disclosure. However, the Supreme Court found that specific exemptions from disclosure were inapplicable: An exemption from disclosure for the reporting and investigation of child abuse does not apply because that exemption is directed to the children services boards or the department of human services, not the Ombudsman Office; the confidential law enforcement investigatory records exemption does not apply because the information requested does not pertain to a law enforcement matter; and, the records are not exempted from disclosure as medical records because they are not maintained in the process of medical treatment.
A dissenting opinion stated that the Ombudsman Office “lacks sufficient ties to any government entity to be appropriately considered a public office.” Records of any private entity either receiving some public funding or maintaining a partnership with a government agency would be subject to disclosure under the majority ruling, the dissent emphasized.
The Ombudsman Office has filed a motion for reconsideration. (Ohio ex rel. Strothers v. Wertheim; Appellant Counsel: Gerald Strothers, Jr., Cleveland, pro se)