Open government coalition and ONA combine to test public record compliance

Last updated: June 10. 2014 11:50PM - 1349 Views
By - gabernathy@civitasmedia.com

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Public employees who were asked to provide common public records during a statewide test in April of Ohio’s open records laws followed the law in nine of every 10 requests, according to audit results that found much higher compliance than a similar survey a decade ago.

In Highland County, officials with the county, the city of Hillsboro and Hillsboro City Schools responded well to public record requests, according to audit results.

Records that were requested included meeting minutes, restaurant inspections, birth records, a mayor’s expense report, school superintendents’ pay, police chief pay and police incident reports.

“It’s a meaningful improvement over what was found 10 years ago,” said Dennis Hetzel, executive director of the Ohio Newspaper Association. The audit was sponsored by the Ohio Coalition for Open Government of ONA. It began April 21 and, in most counties, was completed within days.

Newspaper, television and radio reporters served as auditors in all 88 Ohio counties. Auditors didn’t identify themselves as reporters when making requests to ensure the same experience as a typical citizen seeking public records.

In Highland County, records were requested by a Columbus radio station news director, who made notations about his efforts to obtain various records.

For example, after requesting the latest meeting minutes from the Highland County Board of Commissioners, the reporter noted, “This record request was granted immediately and without question. The staff member providing the record was courteous. The minutes were for the April 9 meeting, which would have been approved at the April 16 meeting, the most recent meeting to the audit date.”

After requesting from the city of Hillsboro documents containing the chief of police salary, it was noted, “The document requested was made available later the same day as the request. The staff member providing it was polite and courteous.” He added, “The city’s public records request policy was posted in plain view for any visitor to read.”

After requesting Hillsboro mayor Drew Hastings’ latest expense report, it was noted, “The document was in another office and was provided later the same day. The staff was polite and courteous. The request was not immediately understood, but the document provided was the one requested.”

After requesting an incident report from the Hillsboro Police Department, it was noted, “The request was granted immediately and the officer granting the request was courteous and cheerful. The officer explained that the documents needed to be redacted to protect personal information but this was done immediately and the records were available for inspection within a few minutes. There were two incident reports filed for the previous day and none for the date of the request.”

When it came to obtaining records from Hillsboro City Schools, no problems were encountered.

In regard to one item – a document detailing the Hillsboro superintendent’s salary – the reporter noted, “The individual whose office retained the document was in a meeting, so I was asked to leave my name and phone number and expect the document to be provided later in the day. The document was made available and explained by the individual whose office retained the record. All individuals involved in the request were courteous and helpful.”

In regard to another Hillsboro school district record, it was noted, “The response was timely and thorough. The policy said a fee would be charged for copies of records but none was mentioned during the in-person request.”

While the audit focused on records that were requested in person, other records were requested via email, a growing trend for record requests.

In Highland County, officials were asked by email to provide a copy of the county’s public records policy and records retention policy, and the reporter stated, “The county’s public records request policy, a form and the retention schedule were e-mailed within three hours of the request and included information that reflected that the policies were posted publicly.”

Only when requesting birth records and restaurant inspection records from the county health department did a snag occur. The reporter noted that “the initial request was made via e-mail on April 22. Follow-up e-mails were sent on April 23 and 24 and there has not been a response.”

However, that notation was accompanied by a score of “4,” which indicates that the record was eventually provided when Ohio’s open records law was referenced.

Dr. Jim Vanzant, commissioner of the Highland County health department, said Tuesday it was possible the email was initially overlooked.

“It probably did happen,” he said, explaining that email traffic on pressing health issues are routinely routed to the appropriate person, but emailed record requests might sometimes be overlooked for a couple of days. He said that calling the office or stopping in personally are the best courses of action.

Along with the comments made by the journalist seeking the records, the results of each record request were assigned a score ranging from “1” to “6,” with “1” indicating immediate compliance, “6” indicating that the record was denied or would not be available within a day or two. Other numbers indicate responses falling somewhere between the two extremes.

Overall across Ohio, 90 percent of requests were granted either immediately, over time or with some conditions, compared with 70 percent a decade ago, according to audit results. The improvement was illustrated by requests for superintendents’ salaries, with compliance rising from about one of every two requests to nine of every 10 requests this year.

In Highland County, a similar improvement from 10 years ago was noted. In 2004, four of six records that were requested in person were provided the same day, while two were denied. This year, all six records that were requested in person were provided with no denials.

Around the state, not every encounter went smoothly. In neighboring Clinton County, a clerk filled a request for county commissioners’ meeting minutes but summoned a sheriff’s deputy after the auditor declined to give his name. Several school districts required auditors to fill out a public records request form, a violation of Ohio law which does not require a written request, identification or the reason for the request.

The attorney general’s office, which conducts mandatory three-hour public records training for Ohio elected officials, regularly reminds officials of the law regarding requests, said Damian Sikora, chief of the office’s Constitutional Offices Section.

“Sometimes there’s a little bit of a disconnect between some of the people taking the request and the office holders themselves,” he said.

State Auditor David Yost, whose office randomly samples municipalities’ open records compliance, said he was troubled not to see 100 percent compliance with requests for things such as a superintendent’s compensation or police chief’s pay.

“Those are just things that there’s really no excuse not to be promptly responsive to,” Yost said.

The audit turned up some problems with the delivery of information electronically, with many auditors having trouble finding useable email addresses in rural counties.

The website for the Harrison County village of Cadiz listed email addresses, though some were rejected when an auditor tried to use them. Other offices responded to emails quickly.

The audit follows a decade of uneven developments for advocates of open records.

Ohio’s 2004 concealed weapons law, for example, shielded the names of permit holders but contained a generous provision for reporters. Lawmakers later restricted the law to allow reporters to view the records but not make copies.

In 2005, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that state employees’ home addresses may be kept private because they don’t meet the definition of a record under state open records laws.

The following year, a divided court said that private organizations are not subject to open records laws without clear evidence they are equivalent to a public office. The case involved a Summit County halfway house that receives most of its funding from taxpayers.

A searchable database of the county-by-county results of the public records audit can be found at http://public.tableausoftware.com/profile/randy.mazzola#!/vizhome/Ohiorecordsrequests/Dashboard1.

Andrew Welsh-Huggins of the Associated Press contributed to this story.

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