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Published: Wednesday, 6/16/2004

Openness takes a hit

IT WAS a noble experiment with the best of intentions, and the results are troubling.

Across the state in 42 Sunday newspapers, including The Blade, citizens read reports of their public officials' reluctance to turn over public records on demand, as state law requires.

Too often requests were improperly stalled or denied, as they have been increasingly around the nation since 9/11. Open government advocates are rightly alarmed.

A consortium of state newspapers and others, which surveyed public offices in all 88 counties in April, found a shocking 50 percent compliance rate. Many officials neither knew nor cared what the law requires of them. Some parts of the state, such as the northeast, were worse than others.

The outcome is particularly disturbing because Ohio's open records laws require more accessibility than any in the nation.

The statewide audit, obviously unannounced, was sponsored by the Ohio Coalition for Open Government, established by the Ohio Newspaper Association, whose members include 83 daily and 163 weekly newspapers. Conducting it were representatives from 42 newspapers, including The Blade, the Associated Press, two radio stations, the University of Dayton, and Ohio University.

The extent of noncompliance is surprising in light of successful efforts over the past 15 years by The Blade and other Ohio media to secure open government and public records. It is no surprise, for example, that police and government records in Toledo were readily available.

Ohio law says public records "shall be promptly prepared and made available for inspection to any person at all reasonable times during regular business hours." A public record is any record, whether paper or electronic, prepared in the course of doing public business.

Survey auditors, who identified themselves as media representatives only if asked specifically, were turned down on run-of-the-mill requests for records such as salary information for school superintendents and police chiefs, police logs, public meeting minutes, and the like.

Across the state, police departments complied best with open records laws, supplying information the same or the next day 60 percent of the time. When a department deviated, it was glaring. Police in Genoa, Napoleon, Oregon, Swanton, and Sylvania, for example, said, in violation of state law, that they'd refuse information to anonymous inquirers.

School districts, including Toledo's, were worst at compliance. They turned over superintendent salary data within 24 hours only 28 percent of the time. Wauseon Exempted Villages Schools told a requester that its policy is to wait five days before turning over a record, a position untenable under state law.

More frightening for a democratic society is that some police checked the license plates of the individuals asking, including The Blade's reporter. The law says police must have a legitimate reason to do that, and a citizen's visit to the police station would hardly seem to qualify.

Analyses like this one have made a difference in other states, four of which have changed their records laws to facilitate access.

Compliance seems easier if there are stringent penalties, including jail time. In Florida in 1999, for example, a school board official spent a week in jail for withholding a record.

Ohio has no penalties for failure to comply, though the record withholder may have to pay legal fees if he or she loses a challenge. Maybe the penalty portion of the law needs a substantial upgrading.

Government officials who see the people as apart from themselves, in effect the "enemy," to be controlled or ignored, are dangerous to a society run on democratic ideals.



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