Columbus -- Republican state Auditor Dave Yost launched a new program March 12 aimed at helping Ohioans resolve public records complaints against state and local agencies.

His "Sunshine Audit" initiative is an attempt to help residents access the documents without having to hire a lawyer.

"Let's say that a bureaucrat has a hold of a public record and doesn't want to give it up," Yost said. "And Joe Citizen comes in and wants it, and the bureaucrat refuses. The bottom line is there is nothing he can do except ... hire a lawyer, go to court, and that's expensive... It's fundamentally wrong that we should have a situation in Ohio where the government can stonewall a private citizen and force them to spend tens of thousands of dollars that they don't have in order to get public records."

Through the new program, citizens or groups can submit complaints against public offices.

Disputes involving local offices would have to go through an existing mediation program offered by the attorney general's office first.

If that process doesn't resolve the dispute, or if the complaint deals with a state agency, then Yost's office will conduct an audit of the office to determine if the state's public records laws have been broken.

Yost said he hoped public offices would provide records in cases where state law has been violated. Otherwise, citizens or groups could seek legal recourse, with the audit findings in hand.

"I would not want to have the lawsuit where Exhibit A is the auditor's determination that my client failed to comply with the law," he said.

He added, "We think that the vast majority of public records disputes are not really appropriate for court. They're not complex. They're matters that can and should be resolved without an expensive lawsuit, and that's what a Sunshine Audit is designed to do."

Yost's press conference took place next to a sundial outside the Statehouse, a symbolic nod to Sunshine Week, an annual event drawing attention to open meetings and records laws that starts March 15.

Kovac is the Dix Capital Bureau chief. Email him at mkovac@dixcom.com or on Twitter at OhioCapitalBlog.