Partisan blustering shines light on need for accountability reform in Ohio
(Posted by Trent A. Dougherty, Director of Legal Affairs, Ohio Environmental Council)
In a press release today, State Reps. Ted Celeste (D-Grandview Heights), Jay P. Goyal (D-Mansfield) and Matt Lundy (D-Elyria) criticized Republicans for moving Ohio away from open, accountable and transparent state government.
The lawmakers pointed out a number of examples of Republicans attempting to hide their actions behind a vault of secrecy, including putting major new policy directives into the state budget without any public hearings, stonewalling virtually all open records requests, exempting JobsOhio from public records and allowing lobbyists to work directly with the non-partisan Legislative Services Commission to write bill language.
While the tenor of the legislators’ criticism was highly partisan, to say the least, the underlying message is an important one — Government transparency is critical to a fully functioning democracy, and Ohio is in desperate need of real policy change. No matter the party or faction leading the legislature, the process needs to be conducted properly, ethically, transparently.
The three legislators, to that end, have or are planning to introduce three bills:
- Rep. Lundy is the sponsor of the ‘Taxpayer’s Right to Know Act’ (HB 113) which requires that all records from the performance or assistance of a public-private partnership with state functions are public records, and that such entities must conduct official business in open meetings.
- Reps. Celeste and Goyal have introduced legislation to limit special interest groups’ access to the bill-writing process. House Bill 294 – The Commonsense Transparency Bill – prohibits outside parties and individuals from meeting with the Legislative Services Commission (LSC) without a member of the General Assembly or their staff present. LSC is the non-partisan agency that assists the legislature in writing the specific language of bills. The Commonsense Transparency Bill also specifies any form of written, oral, or electronic communication as a meeting that must include either a member or their staff.
- Reps. Goyal and Lundy are planning to introduce legislation soon to roll back Republican attempts to make it easier for officials to stonewall public records requests.
While I work for a “special interest” organization (although surely not the nefarious kind suggested in the press release, I hope) and I do not subscribe wholly to the partisan and political rhetoric, I applaud and support the legislation proposed by Reps Goyal, Lundy, and Celeste. The collective goal of these proposed bills is to provide transparency in the legislative process and full accountability of our elected leaders.
However, even this is not enough. I must also offer my own recommendations for legislation that go even farther to providing the necessary government accountability and transparency Ohio needs. I call for a larger Statehouse Accountability and Public Empowerment Act that would provide for:
- Transparency and Accountability through transcription of legislative committee hearings, including testimony, questions from legislators, answers, and commentary; as well as transcription of legislative floor sessions and debates. Further we will seek Transparency and Accountability through advocating for the codification of legislative intent to provide not only better judicial interpretation of laws, but most importantly, will be a transparent way of keeping legislators accountable for why they vote for or against a law.
- Transparency and Accountability through Increased use of technology (such as SKYPE and Closed Circuit television) to allow citizens to view and participate in legislative committee hearings without necessarily traveling across the state. There is precedent already for SKYPE being used to allow a witness from across the country testify on a bill in Committee during the anti-abortion bills this spring. Using this precedent, the General Assembly should develop a mechanism in both the House and Senate to permit citizen witnesses to contact the committee chair and request to testify on a piece of legislation via SKYPE at a specified time during the committee proceeding. Further, as the Ohio General Assembly “televises” its floor sessions on the internet based “Ohio Channel”, similar technology could be used for all legislative proceedings to allow for the public to view committee hearings without traveling to Columbus.
- Timely dissemination of legislative committee and floor session transcripts via readily available websites or otherwise easily accessible media. While the hope would be for the state to disseminate these documents and notify/educate the public on legislative participation mechanism, OEC along with colleague groups will develop a public outreach and information dissemination campaign.
- Truth in testimony, by requiring those who testify before committees to take an oath or otherwise affirm the truth of their testimony in face of perjury.
I urge legislators on both sides of the aisle to critically review our legislative process to ensure transparency and accountability. Ohioans deserve to know what is going on in the hallowed halls of Capitol Square, and that policies are in place to provide public awareness of the work their elected officials do (or not do). And those policies must have one goal in mind — keep legislators accountable for what they say, do, and for positions that they take that otherwise may go unnoticed.
Other recommendations for executive agency transparency and accountability (as well as recommendations to protect Ohio’s Air, Land, and Water) can be found in the Ohio Environmental Council’s 2011 Ohio Environmental-Conservation Legislative Briefing Book.