The federal government recommends demolishing over 200 buildings at the site of a former Cold War-era uranium plant in southern Ohio.
Ohio Public Records Compliance Improves
A test of Ohio’s open records law has found much higher compliance than a similar audit conducted a decade ago.
Auditors Found 90% compliance
The April audit saw adherence in nine of every 10 requests for basic records, such as meeting minutes, a mayor’s expense report, school superintendents’ pay and police incident reports.
The executive director of the Ohio Newspaper Association, Dennis Hetzel, calls the results a meaningful improvement compared with 10 years ago, when there was adherence in seven of every 10 requests.
Newspaper, television and radio reporters throughout Ohio served as auditors in all 88 counties. The audit began April 21 and was completed within several days in most counties.
The project assigned auditors to locations where they wouldn’t be recognized, and auditors didn’t identify themselves as reporters to ensure the same experience as typical citizens.
Public Records Belong To All
The law says Ohio public records belong to all Ohioans. Here are some details on the public’s rights to those records:
Asking to inspect records in person should provide quicker access, without cost.
The government can’t charge for records, other than minimal copying costs, such as 5 cents a page or a dollar for a CD.
If a request is denied, an explanation must be provided in writing. If a request is considered too broad, officials are required to work with a citizen to help narrow the request and obtain records.
Ohio is among a handful of states that set no deadline for government to provide records. The legal standard says response must be prompt. Court rulings have signaled that waits of more than two weeks likely are unreasonable.
The public-records mediation program of the attorney general’s office can help if a request is denied or response is slow.
How Audit Was Conducted
News organizations and the Ohio Coalition for Open Government joined together on an audit to check access to public records in Ohio. A similar audit was conducted in 2004.
Journalists from newspaper, television and radio stations throughout Ohio served as auditors in all 88 counties. The audit began April 21 and was completed in several days in most counties.
Journalists were trained in how to phrase records requests and record their findings. They were assigned to locations where they wouldn’t be recognized, and they didn’t identify themselves as journalists so they would have the same experience as a typical citizen seeking public records. Media lawyers reviewed the records requests to ensure that they were clearly in the public domain.
The auditors were recruited from media outlets that are members of the Ohio Newspaper Association and the Ohio Association of Broadcasters. The audit was overseen by the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University.
Electronic Requests Not Treated Uniformly
The audit finds local governments have a scattershot approach to electronic requests.
Some government websites provide email addresses or online contact forms. But many don’t, or officials fail to respond to emails requesting public records.
This year’s audit by the Ohio Coalition for Open Government included electronic records requests as well as in-person requests. It was a follow-up to a 2004 statewide audit.
Media attorney David Marburger says local governments have the same responsibility to respond to an electronic request as they do to those made by another method.
Damian Sikora is an official in the Ohio attorney general’s office. He recommends citizens reach out by phone to make sure they sent an email to the right person in an agency.