In April of this year, public records auditors in Ohio set out to test counties’ compliance with the Ohio Sunshine Laws, resulting in higher numbers of compliance than in 2004.
Auditors were to ask public offices for records such as meeting minutes, birth records, a mayor’s expense report, the Police Chief’s yearly salary, and police incident reports.
The audit, sponsored by the Ohio Coalition for Open Government of the Ohio Newspaper Association, reported that over 90 percent of requests were granted either immediately, over time, or were granted but with certain conditions; higher than a decade ago, when compliance rates sat at 70 percent.
Newspaper, television, and radio auditors were sent to all 88 counties in Ohio to conduct audits. Dressed as a typical citizen, auditors hoped to achieve an experience as any “normal” person may experience. Unless a law states otherwise, “a requester does not have to provide a reason for wanting records, provide his or her name, or make the request in writing,” according to the Ohio Public Records Act, so long as the request is clear and specific.
“Any person may request to inspect or obtain copies of public records from a public office that keeps those records,” reads the OPRA. “A public office must organize and maintain its public records in a manner that meets its duty to respond to public records requests, and must keep a copy of its records retention schedule at a location readily available to the public.”
A public office is legally allowed to withhold records, however, the office must provide the requester the law which the office is standing by to withhold the record.
If an office denies the record wrongfully, the person requesting the record may file a law suit against the public office. In this lawsuit, “the requester will have the burden of showing that they made a proper records request, and the public office will have the burden of showing the court that any record it withheld was clearly subject to one or more valid exceptions,” according to the OPRA.
The question, though, is how did Preble County measure up against the other counties?
Five public records requests were conducted in Preble County in April, and all five were granted the same day.
When confronted by the public records auditor, the City of Eaton’s director of finance “advised in a written notice on city letterhead: ‘The mayor has incurred no expenses for the city for 2014.’ Therefore, I considered the request granted as no such record was available,” said the auditor.
When the auditor asked to see a copy of the retention schedule, a member of the public office said via email, “Thank you for your request. At this time the City of Eaton intends to fully respond to your request. However, we would like to ensure that we are providing what you are requesting in the format you desire. The public records policy and the records retention schedule are immediately available in electronic format at the following links,” with links provided in the same email.
The auditor then conducted their audit at Eaton Community Schools, saying, “Treasurer asked name, but did not deny request when I identified myself as “a citizen.” Instead of providing the budget document, she instead provided the superintendent’s Annual Salary Notice. She claimed the budget document was many pages. I believe she would have printed it for me had I continued to press, however I considered the request fulfilled once she provided the superintendent’s salary information. The salary is $129,759.00 for 2013-14.”
For more information regarding other counties’ involvement, visit http://www.ohionews.org/legislative/open-government/foi-audit-interactive-graphic/