By ANDREW WELSH-HUGGINS
An open government resource manual for Ohio's Sunshine Laws.
Public employees asked to provide common records during a statewide test of Ohio’s open records laws in April followed the law in nine 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.
“It’s a meaningful improvement over what was found 10 years ago,” said Dennis Hetzel, executive director of the Ohio Newspaper Association.
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, including staff from The Vindicator and The NewsOutlet at Youngstown State University. Auditors didn’t identify themselves as reporters when making requests to ensure the same experience as a typical citizen seeking public
Overall, 90 percent of requests were granted either immediately, over time or with some conditions. Such was the case in Mahoning County. That’s compared with
70 percent statewide 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 nine of every 10 requests this year.
An “impressive compliance with the law,” reported an auditor who received the salary of the Medina police chief almost immediately, along with an explanation of how it was calculated. It was “probably one of the easiest times I’ve ever had obtaining public records from a government agency that wasn’t familiar with me,” the auditor noted.
“Cooperative and flexible,” reported another auditor of a secretary at Ashland schools who, while initially confused by the request for the superintendent’s salary, quickly provided it on further explanation.
Not every encounter went smoothly. 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, a violation of Ohio law that 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 regarding 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 officeholders 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,” 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 website for the Harrison County village of Cadiz listed email addresses, though some were rejected when an auditor tried to use them. Other offices responded to emails quickly.
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 following 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.