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Formal training on responding to requests remains scarce in area



Published: Sat, June 12, 2004 @ 12:00 a.m.



Officials address requests for records in various ways.

By IAN HILL

VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER

Government and school employees in the Mahoning Valley receive little formal training on how to respond to public records requests, despite the complexities of Ohio's public records law, The Vindicator has found.

The law "is extremely hard to understand," said Cleveland Atty. David Marburger, who recently assisted with a statewide public records audit in Ohio. "It really requires a lawyer to understand it."

In Campbell, Mayor Jack Dill said secretaries in the city's fire department are told to stay informed of the law when they're not busy with fire department duties. Those secretaries are then expected to tell other employees about the law.

"They know the laws and spread the word," Dill said.

Struthers Mayor Dan Mamula said any public-records issues are discussed at department head meetings, and the department heads are expected to discuss the issues with employees.

In Liberty, employees are kept updated on their responsibilities under the law by discussing public-records issues cited in newspaper articles, township Administrator Pat Ungaro said.

"We pretty much know ... that everything we have is public record. If something is public record, just give it to them," Ungaro said.

He added, however, "you're opening up something maybe we should look at."

What's in law

Ohio's public records law gives anyone the right to walk into any public office during business hours and inspect public records.

When asked how their employees are educated about the law, several local government and school officials stressed that they receive very few requests for public records.

"This is not something that comes along every day," said Girard Mayor James Melfi, who said he's received two requests for public records during his time in office.

Salem Auditor James Armeni said during his seven years in office, there have been no requests for public records from people who walk into his office off the street.

Statewide audit

During the recent statewide records audit by the Ohio Coalition for Open Government, reporters, college students and professors, and other newspaper employees walked into school and government offices and police departments "off the street" and asked for public records. Officials granted 53 percent of their requests unconditionally.

Some of the Mahoning Valley government and school employees who had the best responses to the audit had some formalized training in the public records law, or their communities had written public-records policies.

Boardman Township Administrator Curt Seditz said police employees are trained on public records requests, and that the township clerk's office has written guidelines. A Vindicator reporter was given unconditional access to township records during the audit.

"I would expect our people to pass with flying colors because we train them," Seditz said. "We always err on the side of public records."

Mahoning County

Joe Caruso, assistant administrator for Mahoning County, noted the county has a written policy on public records that is included in its employee handbook, and that county employees attend state seminars where public records are discussed. A request for records from the county commissioners' office was granted unconditionally as part of the audit.

During and after the audit, The Vindicator also found that government officials and employees in various communities have different ways of responding to records requests. In some communities, a request could be granted by a secretary, while in others, requests are sent to department heads and administrators.

Schools, YSU

Canfield schools Superintendent Dante Zambrini said all records requests are directed to him or the schools' treasurer, and that the district requires requests to be in writing "just as a courtesy."

Howland schools Superintendent John Rubesich also said that in his district, all records requests are sent to the administration office and that individual schools are not allowed to release records.

Salem schools Superintendent David Brobeck said at the direction of the school board's attorney, he co-signs all written records requests.

Some local officials, including Brobeck and Rubesich, added that their employees will typically sit with someone reviewing a public record to ensure that the record is not altered.

At Youngstown State University, public records requests are typically sent to Ron Cole, manager of news and information services. Cole then directs requests to the appropriate department.

hill@vindy.com




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