The vast majority of journalists in the United States work for smaller newspapers like The Bryan Times. They cover town councils, city councils, county government, courts, cops and commissions and many times are the only members of the public present while these boards are in deliberation or discussion.
On a regular basis, a news article will require more information than that which is presented during a governmental meeting. Generally, administrators and office holders freely offer the information when requested.
For the professional journalist, the free flow of information helps us tell the story in more depth.
However, there are instances in professional encounters where information doesn’t flow so readily. And, this is where government itself has supplied the tools to better facilitate the dissemination of information — for the professional and for the average citizen seeking the details.
For the better part of the last 50 years, the public has demanded more and better access to public records and “sunshine” in governance — local, state and national. And, governmental entities around the nation have legislated rules, regulations and laws with regard to access.
The Ohio Attorney General’s Office notes that, in Ohio, the Public Records Act is built on the United States’ historical principle that the records of government are “the people’s records.”
The Public Records Act provides citizens with steps to take in order to request records from any public office in Ohio while protecting certain specific types of records from release. It also establishes a legal process to enforce compliance when a requester feels that a public office has failed to satisfy its public records obligations.
The Attorney General’s Office also notes that any person can request public records by simply asking for them. Usually, the request can be made in any manner the requester chooses: by phone, in person, or in an email or letter. The requester cannot be required to identify him- or herself, or to explain why the records are being requested, unless a specific law requires it.
While anyone has a right to ask for public records and public information, the actual “timely” delivery of such information may be dependent on governmental office staffing and other factors that may inhibit immediate response to the request. The state requires a reasonable amount of time for the request to be researched and records reproduced.
Most offices in Ohio have been in compliance with Ohio’s Sunshine Laws, however some requests have been met with resistance — and, the Ohio Auditor’s Office is keeping track.
On Sunday, the beginning of Sunshine Week, Auditor of State Dave Yost announced that, with regard to financial records requests, about 5.5 percent of the 4,803 financial audits issued in 2017 included citations for noncompliance with public records-related requirements. The prior year, 8 percent of the 4,446 audits released included noncompliance citations.
The majority of citations stemmed from officials neglecting to attend state-required public records trainings, entities lacking public records policies or a failure to make the policy readily available to employees and the general public. Auditors routinely review public records practices during audits.
In 2016, there were 414 citations issued to 357 entities by state auditors for public records-related matters, meaning citations decreased by more than 22 percent in 2017.
“I can understand a bookkeeping error – mistakes happen,” Auditor Yost said. “But there’s no justification for violating the clear law of public records.
“Message to public officials: These are not your records. Do whatever it takes to comply with this law: Put up a sign. Post it on social media,” Yost said. “These are public records, and it is the law.”
While townships represented 13.7 percent of the 4,803 reports released in 2017, they represented 27.4 percent of the public record citations. Similarly, villages represented 7.8 percent of reports, but were responsible for 29.2 percent of citations. The entities most cited:
• Townships – 13.7 percent of all reports released; 27 percent of all entities cited
• Villages – 7.8 percent of all reports released; 29 percent of all entities cited
• Police/Fire/EMS and ambulance districts – 1.4 percent of all reports released; 7 percent of all entities cited
• Cities – 6 percent of all reports released; 6.5 percent of all entities cited
• School districts – 16.7 percent of all reports released; 5 percent of all entities cited
• Counties – 2 percent of all reports released; 4.7 percent of all entities cited
• Community schools – 7.6 percent of all reports released; 4 percent of all entities cited
Both the Ohio Auditor’s office and the Office of the Ohio Attorney General offer public records trainings to public employees.
While most of the information in government hands may be considered public information, and available under open records laws, some information is exempt — just because you ask for it doesn’t mean you’re going to get it.
While the Public Records Act presumes and favors public access to government records, Ohio and federal laws provide limited exemptions to protect certain records from mandatory release. And, the list of exemptions is long — medical records, probationary records, personnel records, juvenile records, confidential information about citizens, student records, public safety records, grand jury records and trade secrets (among many more categories of exemptions).
The Ohio Sunshine Laws Manual, issued by the Ohio Attorney General’s Office, contains about 20 pages of exemptions. The manual is available online at: http://www.ohioattorneygeneral.gov/Files/Publications-Files/Publications-for-Legal/Sunshine-Law-Publications/Sunshine-Laws-Manual.