Audit: Public records requests improving

By Andrea Chaffin and Gary Abernathy Civitas Media

June 11, 2014

Public employees who were asked to provide common public records during a statewide test in April of Ohio’s open records laws followed the law in nine of every 10 requests, according to audit results.

Compliance was much higher in April, compared to a similar survey a decade ago.

In Madison County, officials with the county, the city of London, and London City Schools responded well to public record requests. However, an officer with the London Police Department initially obstructed the documents’ release, according to audit results.

The audit was sponsored by the Ohio Coalition for Open Government — an arm of the Ohio Newspaper Association (ONA). It began April 21 and, in most counties, was completed within days.

Records that were requested included meeting minutes, restaurant inspections, birth records, a mayor’s expense report, 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, ONA executive director.

Newspaper, television and radio reporters served as auditors in all 88 Ohio counties. Auditors didn’t identify themselves as reporters when making requests to ensure the same experience as a typical citizen seeking public records.

In Madison County, records were requested by an ONA manager who made notations about his efforts to obtain various records.

For example, after requesting the latest meeting minutes from the Madison County Board of Commissioners, the reporter noted, “The county commissioner’s office allowed me to sit at a desk and go through all of their minutes. The staff were very professional and allowed easy access to the records without asking why I wanted to see them.”

After requesting incident reports from the London Police Department, it was noted, “When I asked to view the incident reports, I was confronted by a police officer who asked for my name and why I wanted to view the records. When I said that under Ohio law I didn’t have to provide such information to see the records, he said he wouldn’t show them to me.

“However, (the officer) also said I could go talk to the city’s law director who was around the corner from the police station. The law director was out of the office but his staff took my phone number and first name,” he added. “A short while later the law director called and said they’d be happy to provide the requested records. He even said they’d email them so I didn’t have to make a second trip. I received the requested records by email within the hour.”

LPD Chief Dave Wiseman said Wednesday he does not understand why the reporter would have posed the question to an officer. Typically, requests are made at the desk of the radio room, which serves as a reception area for members of the public entering the police department.

“Asking an officer is unusual — that’s questionable in my mind,” Wiseman said. “All personnel are trained in public records, so when they come in, all are directed toward the radio room. If there are questions, they ask their supervisor, and if they can’t resolve it, it comes to myself or the law director.”

Wiseman added that his office regularly fills requests in a “timely fashion.”

There were no issues reported during a records request from the City of London, according to the audit.

After requesting London Mayor Dave Eades’ latest expense report, the reporter noted, “When I stopped at the London city office, a clerk explained I’d need to go to the city auditor to make my request. At the auditor’s office the staff were helpful, with one staff member even sounding excited at the request.

“However, because the city auditor was out of the office they couldn’t immediately fill my request so I left my first name and phone number. The next day the London city auditor called me back. The following day she called again and said the records would be made available at the front desk.”

When it came to obtaining records from London City Schools, no problems were encountered.

The reporter noted, “The London City School’s administrative office provided the requested information. They asked for my name but, when I said I’d prefer not to give it, they accepted this answer. However, the administrative office is located within London Elementary School. In order to enter the elementary school I was required to provide my full name and reason for being there to the school’s entry receptionist. If I had not provided my name, I would not have been allowed into the school.”

While the audit focused on records that were requested in person, other records were requested via email, a growing trend for record requests.

Overall across Ohio, 90 percent of requests were granted either immediately, over time or with some conditions, compared with 70 percent a decade ago, according to audit results. The improvement was illustrated by requests for superintendents’ salaries, with compliance rising from about one of every two requests to nine of every 10 requests this year.

In Madison County, a similar improvement from 10 years ago was noted. In 2004, two of six records that were requested in person were provided the same day, while one was granted the next day, two granted partially/conditionally and one was denied. This year, all six records that were requested in person were provided with no denials.

Around the state, not every encounter went smoothly. In Clinton County, a clerk filled a request for county commissioners’ meeting minutes 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 which 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 office holders 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.

A searchable database of the county-by-county results of the public records audit can be found at!/vizhome/Ohiorecordsrequests/Dashboard1.

Andrew Welsh-Huggins of the Associated Press contributed to this story.