On June 27, 2019, Fox 8 broadcast its interview with Professor Plecnik on public records law and the impact of Sheil v. Horton. Anchor and I-Team Reporter Bill Sheil, the named plaintiff in Sheil vs. Horton, asked Professor Plecnik about his case and the problem of government agencies using nonprofits as conduits for public money to avoid scrutiny and public records requests under the Ohio Sunshine Laws.
Reporter Sheil and Fox 8 brought their case using the new, expedited procedure to contest denials of public records requests in the Ohio Court of Claims, which was voted into law by the Ohio General Assembly in 2016.
From the interview: “Public policy expert John Plecnik says the fact that the case began with the new process that goes through the Court of Claims is significant. ‘So this is really new ground that we’re breaking, and I think it’s positive from the perspective of disclosure and taxpayers that the first major decision says err on the side of disclosure.’”
In Sheil v. Horton, Reporter Bill Sheil and Fox 8 sued Cuyahoga County Community College, better known locally as Tri-C, for disclosure of how much it paid Academy Award winning actress Octavia Spencer to speak at a luncheon in 2017. Tri-C denied Fox 8’s public records request on the grounds that its affiliated nonprofit—the Tri-C Foundation—actually contracted with and paid Ms. Spencer. Even though Tri-C is admittedly a public entity as a state-supported community college, it argued that the Tri-C Foundation is a private, nonprofit organization that is not subject to public records requests. In a unanimous opinion authored by Judge Patricia Ann Blackmon, the 8th Appellate District Court of Appeals of Ohio ruled in favor of Fox 8 and required disclosure.
In ruling for Fox 8, the Court of Appeals applied the “functional-equivalency test” first articulated by the Ohio Supreme Court in its 2006 decision of Oriana House v. Montgomery. To quote the Ohio Supreme Court, “[u]nder this test, the court must analyze all pertinent factors, including (1) whether the entity performs a governmental function, (2) the level of government funding, (3) the extent of government involvement or regulation, and (4) whether the entity was created by the government or to avoid the requirements of the Public Records Act.”
Professor Plecnik closed his interview with Fox 8 expressing his hope that recent case law in favor of disclosure will reduce the need for litigation: “If we can build off of Sheil v. Horton and build a culture of disclosure, it won’t even be necessary for taxpayers to bring these lawsuits.”