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Published: Wednesday, 6/11/2014 - Updated: 4 months ago

Test of open-records requests shows improvement statewide

Audit finds 90% eventually complied, better than 10 years ago

BY ANDREW WELSH-HUGGINS
ASSOCIATED PRESS

COLUMBUS — Public employees asked to provide common records during a statewide test of Ohio’s open-records laws in April eventually followed the law in 9 of every 10 requests, according to audit results that found much higher compliance than a similar survey a decade ago.

Records requested included meeting minutes, restaurant inspections, birth records, a mayor’s budget, school superintendents’ pay, police chief pay, and police incident reports. Government agencies in northwest Ohio were more responsive to requests this time around.

“It’s a meaningful improvement over what was found 10 years ago,” said Dennis Hetzel, executive director of the Ohio Newspaper Association, a consortium of the state’s largest newspapers, including The Blade.

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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.

Overall, 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. Successful requests for superintendents’ compensation and school treasurers’ phone bills saw the biggest jumps, with compliance rising from about one of every two requests to 9 of every 10 requests this year.

In northwest Ohio, many complied fully with requests for information.

“This request was as perfect as a public-records request goes,” said an auditor, who received Henry County commissioners’ meeting minutes without incident.

But in some cases, government employees greeted record requests with suspicion or frustration.

A request to see Toledo police incident reports from the shift that most recently filed them went unfilled. The auditor repeatedly was asked to specify which report she wanted and was not provided with a list of recent incidents to review.

A Bowling Green City Schools employee “became very belligerent,” wanted to know why an auditor had requested to review the treasurer’s most recent expense reimbursement form, and printed off a blank form and handed it to the auditor in response, the auditor reported.

A clerk filled a request for county commissioners’ meeting minutes in Clinton County 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. Ohio’s law 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 for 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,” Mr. Yost said.

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

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 next 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.

More recently, lawsuits have challenged Gov. John Kasich’s creation of the state development department with JobsOhio, a privatized job creation office not subject to the open-records laws.

Blade staff writer Vanessa McCray contributed to this report.



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