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Open records audit shows 50 percent compliance

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Open records audit shows 50 percent compliance

  • Public employees in Ohio filled open records requests as required by state law only half of the time, according to an audit sponsored by the Ohio Coalition for Open Government.

June 10, 2004 — Ohio public employees, asked to furnish public records on an unconditional and timely basis, complied with the state’s open records law only about half the time, according to a statewide audit published last month.

More than 90 people from 43 newspapers, The Associated Press, two radio stations and two college journalism programs participated in the April 21 audit, sponsored by the Ohio Coalition for Open Government.

Requesters in the audit sought six different types of records: county minutes, executive expense reports, police incident reports, police chief salaries, school superintendent salaries and school treasurer phone bills.

They were able to inspect the requested public records on the same day 50 percent of the time, the report said. An additional 2.6 percent of public agencies complied by the next day, and 17.1 percent more complied after the requesters met preconditions not required by law, such as having to file written requests or give proof of identity.

Ohio law states that unless exempted, “all public records shall be promptly prepared and made available for inspection to any person at all reasonable times during regular business hours.” There are no additional prerequisites to gain access to public records in the state.

Auditors were completely denied records approximately 30 percent of the time, the report said. In 4.1 percent of the cases, officials claimed the document sought was not a public record. Slightly more than 10 percent of the time personnel were unavailable or too busy to fill requests. Auditors were denied the records in a timely manner — defined as the end of the next business day — 15.9 percent of the time, largely due to procedural delays, such as forwarding the requests to an attorney for approval.

“I think the results were fairly predictable,” said Tom O’Hara, managing editor of The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer .

O’Hara said he is not surprised by the results of the audit because Ohio does not have a particularly strong public disclosure law. Violations of the law do not carry penalties, although a court can award attorney’s fees if a person successfully sues for records.

O’Hara and Tom Gaumer, computer-assisted reporting editor at the Plain Dealer , were appointed by the Ohio Coalition for Open Government last fall to spearhead the audit. The nonprofit organization was created in 1992 by the Ohio Newspaper Foundation, which represents 83 daily and 163 weekly newspapers.

O’Hara said the only real surprise from the audit was that police departments provided salary information more than twice as often as the state Department of Education did, 62.4 percent to 22.6 percent.

To ensure procedural consistency among the auditors, Gaumer conducted 11 training sessions around the state. The auditors who were asked to identify themselves or provide written requests for records had been instructed to ask, “Is that necessary to get the record?” O’Hara said. The goal was to differentiate the demands for auditors’ names that stemmed from social etiquette from those that violated the law, he said.

AV


© 2004 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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