Nonprofit fire company subject to open records law
OHIO–A private nonprofit fire company supported by taxes and serving community residents is subject to the Ohio Public Records Act, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled in mid-August.
The court’s decision grants the Lima News access to records of the chief of the Elida Community Fire Company, including a 14-page report on the sexual assault of one volunteer by another and letters advising both that they would be terminated.
After the March 1998 assault both the police and fire chiefs conducted investigations, but only the fire chief prepared a report. He included it in the personnel files of the two volunteers and shortly afterward allowed a reporter from the Lima News to inspect both files.
But when the News asked for copies in April, the chief refused to provide them and the newspaper sued.
The fire company claimed it was a private company not subject to the records act, and that even if it were subject to the act, the requested records would be considered exempt as confidential law enforcement files.
The court said that the fire company is a public institution subject to the act. The mere fact that it is not operated by the government is irrelevant. It is supported by taxation, including 95 percent of a tax levy for firefighting. One of its articles of incorporation provides for “cooperation with township trustees for maintaining fire equipment.” Also, fire-fighting has historically been a government function, the court said. (State ex. rel. Freedom Communications, Inc.; Media counsel: Meredith Corey, Lima)