Last updated: June 15. 2014 11:18PM - 2322 Views
By - gabernathy@civitasmedia.com

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Last week, The Times-Gazette reported on the results of an audit that tested how various government offices around Ohio responded to public records requests, and when it came to the performance of local officials the results were very good, which was not surprising.

Officeholders and staff with the county, the city of Hillsboro and Hillsboro City Schools responded quickly and appropriately to records requests, the audit found.

The Ohio Newspaper Association and the Ohio Coalition for Open Government spearheaded the statewide audit, which followed up on a similar examination a decade ago.

Newspaper, television and radio reporters served as auditors in all 88 Ohio counties. Reporters serving as auditors posed as regular citizens when making their requests to help make sure the results were reflective of what the average person would experience.

In Highland County, records were requested by a Columbus radio station news director, who came to Hillsboro in April and visited various offices asking for certain documents. He made notations about the results of his requests.

After asking for the minutes of the most recent meeting of the Highland County Commissioners, he wrote, “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 seeking a copy of mayor Drew Hastings’ latest expense report, the auditor remarked, “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.” He also noted that the city’s public records policy was posted in plain view for all to see.

Visiting the Hillsboro police station in search of the latest incident report, he wrote, “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.”

Records from Hillsboro City Schools were also easily provided, and the reporter noted in one instance, “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.”

This year, unlike 10 years ago, requests made by email were part of the audit. Only in that case was there a slight snafu locally, when the county health department did not immediately notice and respond to an emailed request for birth and restaurant inspection records. But the records were eventually provided.

The good response found locally by the audit was not surprising. The Times-Gazette has never had difficulty in recent years obtaining records from any local government office, usually just through verbal requests, as was done by the Columbus reporter who came to Hillsboro as part of the statewide audit.

Compliance with The Times-Gazette’s requests has typically been quick, courteous and complete in virtually every case, whether from the county, the city of Hillsboro, the village of Greenfield, local school districts and other local government entities, including our courts.

Some examples:

* During the nearly two-year controversy over fire coverage for Hillsboro, we requested month after month a plethora of records from the city administration, the city auditor, the fire district and sometimes the state. Records from the local entities were supplied immediately (the state took longer).

* When The Times-Gazette took an in-depth look last year at how Community Development Block Grant dollars were administered in various communities, we sought a large volume of contracts and payment records from the CDBG administrator, the county, the Hillsboro auditor’s office, and the village of Greenfield. Every request was immediately granted and records were supplied in abundance.

* When The Times-Gazette was concerned a year ago or so that grand jury indictments were not being made public as quickly or completely as they could be, one short meeting with the court, the prosecutor’s office, the clerk of courts and the sheriff resulted in a cooperative solution, and since then we have been provided each month with a comprehensive listing of the latest indictments.

* When James Smith was named superintendent of Hillsboro City Schools earlier this year, his salary wasn’t mentioned at the school board meeting when the hiring was announced. But in a phone call the next morning to the school board office, the information was immediately supplied, without any delay or having to check with someone to make sure it was alright.

Example after example yields the same result. We request public records almost every week, including affidavits by law enforcement officers and deputies on current criminal cases. Staff members in common pleas, municipal and juvenile-probate court always supply documents quickly and without question.

We don’t always publish all the information supplied. When it comes to court documents, there are many facts and allegations that are either embarrassing to the victims or simply not suitable for a family newspaper. Other times, in stories not involving criminal behavior, we weigh our right to publish information against other factors.

For example, early this year we asked to see a letter that accompanied a private donation of about $78,000 from a charitable trust to the city of Hillsboro (a donation I referenced in a column last week). The letter was provided to us by the city and we quoted from it extensively, but we chose to honor the donor’s request to remain anonymous. (If you’re reading this online, you can find our original story at this link.)

When it comes to making requests for public records, a cordial and respectful approach yields more success than animosity, condescension, threats or bullying. The most common adjectives used by the Columbus reporter to describe the staff members he encountered at the various county, city and school offices in Hillsboro were “polite,” “cheerful” and “courteous.” It is likely that those adjectives also described him and his approach, resulting in a positive and successful outcome for all involved.

When it comes to obtaining public records from our local government offices, The Times-Gazette consistently enjoys a positive experience. We commend local officeholders and their staff members for their thorough and courteous responses to public records requests, whether from us, or from a stranger from out of town.

Gary Abernathy can be reached at 937-393-3456 or on Twitter @abernathygary.

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