Sunday, June 13, 2004

Citizens have right to public records

The dismal response to requests for public records in the audit by the Ohio Coalition for Open Government should anger all citizens.

As the analysis on the cover of this week's Forum notes, it is often difficult for members of the public to get an accounting of the public's business. The audit involved going into county courthouses, city halls and boards of education in all 88 Ohio counties one day last April and asking for basic pieces of public information: the police chief's salary; the school treasurer's office telephone bill; the minutes of a board of commissioners' meeting; the city manager's expense report; daily police reports; the school superintendent's compensation. All of it was public information that Ohio law says should be provided promptly upon request. About half the time the "auditors" either were denied the information or were told they could not have the information unless they filled out forms or answered questions.

There may be some people who think this sort of access doesn't matter to anyone but nosy news reporters. They would be wrong. While the audit was done by a coalition of news organizations, including The Enquirer, the "auditors" initially asked for the information as private citizens, not reporters. The irony is that in cases where the record keepers found out they were dealing with reporters, they often discarded their initial hesitation and readily supplied the requested information.

Meg Olberding, spokeswoman for Cincinnati City Manager Valerie Lemmie, explained her failure to promptly provide the requested information or to call back later with the information, by saying that the person making the request, "just walked in off the street."

That's the point. The "public" has every right to just walk in off the street and ask for public information.

Every citizen has a right to view public information, whether he or she is trying to determine who owns a piece of property, the actions of the police or if they just want to see what their public servants have been up to.

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