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SEMINAR Spreading sunshine on public-records laws



Published: Thu, September 23, 2004 @ 12:00 a.m.



By IAN HILL

VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER

YOUNGSTOWN -- It doesn't matter if you live in Boardman, Warren, Columbiana, Nepal or any other part of the world: You have the right to see the minutes of the most recent Youngstown City Council meeting.

Under Ohio law, you're also able to review incident reports from the Salem police, the budget for the city of Columbus, and the utility bills for a school district in the Dayton suburbs.

That's because everyone, not only Ohio residents, has the right to access public records under the state's public records law, representatives from the state attorney general's office said Wednesday.

They were responding to a question asked during the Ohio Attorney General's Sunshine Laws training session at Youngstown State University. About 200 local residents, officials and public employees attended the session, which was sponsored by The Vindicator. The term "Sunshine Laws" covers the state's open meeting and public records laws.

During the session, Assistant Attorney General Martin Susec and Deputy Attorney General Audra Osme & ntilde;a DeVictor were asked if two township trustees holding weekly discussions about township business in a truck was a public meeting.

A representative from a local school district also asked if a school board should run a forum with residents as if it were a public meeting.

DeVictor responded that the discussions in the truck most likely were a public meeting, and that the school board should act as if the forum was a public meeting.

"Government works for us. Records kept by government should be accessible to the public. We should also have access to the meetings ... so we can understand if they're doing a good job," Susec said at the start of the training session.

Attorney General Jim Petro noted that ensuring access to public information in Ohio was "a responsibility we all share."

The training session was one of several the attorney general's office decided to hold throughout the state in cooperation with the Ohio Newspaper Association in the wake of a statewide public records audit conducted April 12 by the Ohio Coalition for Open Government. 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.

"That's a problem, and I think all of you understand that's a problem," Petro said.

As part of the session, Susec and DeVictor defined public records and open meetings and outlined the responsibilities of public employees and officials under the Sunshine Laws. Several of those in attendance said they found the training session beneficial.

"They made [the laws] much easier to understand," said Sandy Williams, Austintown police secretary. Fellow police secretary Pat Vallas added that Susec and DeVictor did a good job discussing the laws without using "legalese" that can be confusing.

The Austintown Police Department did not comply with the public records law during the April 12 audit. In the past, police department employees have attended public records seminars similar to Wednesday's training session.

Reaction

Among the public employees that correctly complied with a public record request during the audit were those from the Youngstown Police Department. Lt. Robin Lees, the department's public information officer, said he came to the session in hopes of learning how others have addressed problems with the Sunshine Laws.

"I think our people are pretty clear," Lees said. They know "most of what they handle is going to be public record."

Martha Huscroft, Kinsman library board clerk/treasurer, said because of the training session she now knows that public officials cannot hold a closed-door executive session meeting without a vote to hold the meeting. She said there has been some confusion among the library's board of trustees about executive sessions.

"I'm the clerk, so I have to tell the trustees, 'Give me a motion here'" to go into executive session, Huscroft said.

Both David Paull, a treatment administrative assistant for the Youngstown Waste Water Treatment Plant, and Gary Singer, director of the Mahoning County lead hazard control program, noted that the session gave them a better understanding of what information is considered public record.

"We know a lot of it, but not all," Singer said. "Any update is good."

Youngstown Councilman Richard Atkinson, R-3rd, echoed Singer's comment and said he always welcomed an opportunity to learn more about the Sunshine Laws.

In early August, Atkinson and four other members of Youngstown City Council seemed to violate the open meetings law when they had 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 it was accidental that he met the four other council members. He noted that during the session, DeVictor had said public officials who run into each other at the supermarket and have a discussion do not violate the open meetings law.




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