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OHIO Clearing up confusion over public records law



Published: Sun, September 12, 2004 @ 12:00 a.m.



A Vindicator-sponsored seminar on the laws Sept. 22 will be open to the public.

By IAN HILL

VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER

YOUNGSTOWN -- Local government officials and employees are being invited to attend a seminar later this month to learn more about their responsibilities under Ohio's public records and open-meetings laws.

"Everybody should probably attend," said Youngstown Councilman Richard Atkinson, R-3rd. "We don't know enough about it."

An Ohio Sunshine Laws training seminar led by Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro and his staff will be from 1:30-4 p.m. Sept. 22 in Beeghly Hall at Youngstown State University. The seminar, which is sponsored by The Vindicator, is open to the public.

Kim Norris, chief of communications for Petro's office, said the attorney general thinks the public records and open-meetings laws play an important role in democracy. The records law gives anyone the right to walk into a public office during business hours and inspect public records; the open-meetings law requires officials to perform all official business in meetings open to the public.

"For our democracy to flourish, there has to be an open government," Norris said.

Acting Austintown Police Chief Lt. Mark Durkin said he wants department employees to attend the seminar so that in the future, there will be no question that they understand their responsibilities under the laws.

"I think we want to make sure we're in compliance with the law," he said.

Law audit

The Austintown Police Department was one of several government and school offices in Ohio that did not comply with the public records law during a statewide public records audit April 12. The audit called for government and school officials to provide unconditional access to public records in each of the state's 88 counties.

Statewide, officials provided unconditional access to records 53 percent of the time. In the Mahoning Valley, that figure was 66 percent.

Norris called the results of the audit "abysmal." The Vindicator was the only Valley newspaper asked to participate in the audit.

The attorney general's office decided to hold a series of public records training seminars in the wake of the audit, including the seminar in Youngstown. About 200 people attended the first seminar, which was held in Perrysburg, near Toledo, Norris said.

Lisbon action

Lisbon Schools Superintendent Don Thompson said he thinks the public records audit helped bring attention to confusion about the laws. A school secretary in Lisbon told a reporter during the audit that public records could not be released without Thompson's approval.

Ohio law does not require the approval of a superintendent to release records. After the audit, Thompson said he reviewed the district's public records policy with the secretary.

That policy, however, most likely did not comply with the law, as it required a person to give at least three days' advance notice to review records. State law does not require advance notice to review records.

Thompson said that after the results of the audit were publicized, the district's public records policy was updated by its lawyers. The updated policy contains no provisions about advance notice to review records.

"It didn't surprise me when a month later, we got an update," said Thompson, who added that he wants school employees to attend Petro's seminar in Youngstown if their schedule allows. "I think it's obviously brought the situation to light."

YSU request

Confusion over public records and Ohio's Sunshine Laws, however, did not end with the audit. The Vindicator recently had to wait more than a week for YSU officials to grant a request for documents tied to the controversial hiring of a forensic science instructor.

After the request was granted, YSU officials said they believed the documents were personal notes kept by the hiring committee, and not public records maintained by the university. They said they granted the request because of increased interest over the hiring.

YSU spokesman Ron Cole added that he hoped to attend the seminar, and that he would talk to other university employees about doing the same. He noted that the university has held employee seminars in the past about similar topics, such as ethics.

"I think all those subjects are always important, and it's important people know what's going on," Cole said.

City hall

In early August, five members of Youngstown City Council seemed to violate the public meetings law when they held a 40-minute meeting to discuss city business without first notifying the public. The attorney general's office said under the law, council was required to provide 24 hours' notice to the public and press on the time, place and subject of the meeting.

Atkinson said even before that meeting and the public records audit, council had discussed holding a workshop to eliminate confusion about the Sunshine Laws. He said that now, council most likely will attend Petro's seminar instead of holding a workshop.

Youngstown Mayor George McKelvey didn'treturn a call to ask if he would attend the seminar. During the records audit, McKelvey demanded that a reporter give his name and profession before approving a request to review a record. The mayor also called Vindicator editors to confirm the reporter's identity.

Such information is not required under the public records law. Mc-Kelvey has denied that he demanded the information from the reporter before allowing him to see the records.




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