COLUMBUS— A sampling of local governments’ compliance with state public records law by Auditor Dave Yost revealed that 40 percent of them had spotty record-retention policies or, in some cases, lacked clear understanding of their duties.
“How can you tell if it’s a reasonable time [for government to respond to a records request] under the law if you don’t know when it came in or when you responded?” Mr. Yost said before the Ohio Association of Broadcasters Thursday.
It was a tiny sampling, 20 counties and cities, but Mr. Yost’s office found problems in eight of them, including Bowling Green and Allen County in northwest Ohio.
Bowling Green failed to follow the auditor’s recommended practices in maintaining a log tracking public record requests by the dates they were received and completed. Allen County, meanwhile, hadn’t adopted formal procedures to comply with the law.
No problems were found in 12 local governments, including Williams County, the only other northwest Ohio entity examined.
The review was conducted as part of the governments’ routine individual financial audits. The problems did not rise to the level of an official audit finding against the local government.
Mr. Yost announced the review in March during the state’s annual Sunshine Law Week. He plans to double the sample to 40 with the next round of results to be announced next year.
Bowling Green spokesman Lori Tretter said the city will review Mr. Yost’s recommendations to decide how to implement them across all departments and divisions.
“We were inconsistent in the keeping of the log, but what we were consistent with was our response to public records requests, which we take very seriously,” Ms. Tretter said.
Cuyahoga County, the state’s largest county, had the most issues flagged. Among other things, the auditor determined some county departments failed to retain their electronic responses to public records requests, and some officials couldn’t prove they’d received mandated public records training.
Complaints against local governments for failure to properly respond to a request for public records typically end up in the courts.
Both sides, however, can agree to voluntary mediation through Attorney General Mike DeWine’s office.
Neither Mr. DeWine nor Mr. Yost, however, has the authority to enforce the law.
Dennis Hetzel, executive director of the Ohio Newspaper Association, said Mr. Yost’s review is consistent with reviews done by the media over the last decade.
“It’s a piece of the puzzle,” he said. “Part of complying with the laws is that you have to have a good process. I would argue that a good process is more important than ever since complexity is being added to the law every year with new exceptions.”
Mr. Yost suggested it might be time for lawmakers to re-examine public records law.
“There’s probably room to take a long look to see how can we make this process work better for the people and, quite frankly, how do we fund it, because anecdotally I can tell you the responsiveness of the local government in some cases is impacted by the availability of resources,” he said.
Mr. Hetzel agreed, suggesting a better definition of what a public record is. But he’s doubtful the current political climate is right for that discussion.
“Audits like what Auditor Yost did help to plant seeds for the time when that discussion will be fruitful,” he said.
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