Sunday, June 13, 2004

It's your right to know

Statewide test finds law met in only half of requests

By Cindi Andrews
and Steve Kemme
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The city of Cincinnati's public information officer forgot to reply to a request for public information. Hamilton City Schools required an ID before giving out information that's supposed to be available to anyone. Lebanon City Schools required a written request.

Those were just some of the roadblocks encountered in Southwest Ohio during a news media audit conducted April 21 to measure statewide compliance with the public records law. The audit was conducted by the Ohio Coalition for Open Government, an arm of the Ohio Newspaper Association, to test whether local governments follow the law when regular citizens make records requests.

Without identifying themselves, more than 90 individuals from 43 newspapers, including this one, two radio stations, the Associated Press, the University of Dayton and Ohio University asked public entities in all 88 Ohio counties for six documents.

The records sought: the most recent police incident reports; the most recent expense report for the city manager; the police chief's salary; the most recent meeting minutes for the county commissioners; the school district treasurer's phone bill; and the superintendent's compensation.

The unscientific survey found that records of public business - maintained at public expense and guaranteed open by state law - often aren't so open if you're a mere citizen. Statewide, only half of the records requests were granted promptly and without unnecessary conditions such as a written request.

That's comparable with results of similar audits conducted in more than half of the 50 states, including Indiana. Some states have changed their laws or tightened enforcement after such audits.

In Ohio, county commissioners' meeting minutes were most accessible, with those requests fully met 80 percent of the time. School records were hardest to get, with less than a quarter of the 88 districts visited unconditionally turning over documents showing the superintendent's compensation.

Those trends held up in Southwest Ohio, too. County officials in Hamilton, Butler, Clermont and Warren turned over their meeting minutes without protest, while school officials were the least likely to turn over the requested records. Overall, Hamilton County was in the bottom 20 percent of Ohio counties in fulfilling the six records requests, while Butler and Clermont counties did better than most.

Hamilton County

The open-records auditor who visited Hamilton County - an Enquirer reporter who was not recognized as a member of the media - got just one of the six items she requested: the county commissioners' meeting minutes.

About the Ohio public records audit
Public records allow Ohioans to make educated decisions in many ways every day about their lifestyles, pocketbooks and government. More than 90 people representing 43 newspapers, including The Enquirer, two radio stations, The Associated Press, the University of Dayton and Ohio University took part in a public records access audit in April for the Ohio Coalition for Open Government. Six records were sought in each of Ohio's 88 counties and auditors were asked to record responses.
City Manager Valerie Lemmie's office sent the auditor to city spokeswoman Meg Olberding for the police chief's salary and Lemmie's most recent expense report. Olberding told her the city had a "reasonable time" to respond to the request and said she would call with the information. She never did.

"I dropped the ball," Olberding said later. "It was a busy day, and (the auditor) walked in off the street."

Ohio law says a person should be able to inspect public records "promptly" during regular business hours. Copies of that record should be made within a reasonable period of time.

Cincinnati Councilman David Pepper, chairman of council's Law Committee, said he's confident Olberding's failure to comply with the law was an atypical mistake.

"I think Meg and the manager's office work hard to be responsive," Pepper said. "I don't know if this was the most scientific way to (test access)."

The open-records auditor also struck out with Cincinnati Public Schools. She said she was first asked to put her requests in writing, but when she challenged whether that was necessary, officials said they would call her. They never did.

Kate Greiner, the treasurer's executive secretary, remembered the conversation differently, saying she said requests must be made in writing to the district's public relations office.

"It's public record, but our rule is, it needs to be done our way," Greiner told the Enquirer last week.

Actually, state law does not allow such leeway. But School District Treasurer Mike Geoghegan said he was not aware Ohio law has no provision for requiring requests to be in writing.

"There just has to be documentation. I don't see how to get around that," he said. "We're more than willing to get the information. ... (But) how else would you control the response if you didn't log the request?"

Cincinnati Public Schools spokeswoman Janet Walsh denied the district requires requests in writing, although it's encouraged.

"I do think it's a great aid to meeting the letter and spirit of the law, which is to provide information in a timely way," Walsh said.

The Cincinnati Police Department also didn't fulfill the auditor's request for recent incident reports. However, that was because the department doesn't collect and store new incident reports in chronological order, public information officials said. They are tracked by the victim's name.

Clermont County

Clermont County had the best record of the four area counties. The open-records auditor there got four of the six requested documents unconditionally. She was required to put her two requests of the Batavia school district in writing, but once she did the district was the only one of the four visited in Southwest Ohio that supplied both records.

"A phone bill was a very strange request, and a superintendent's contract is usually a strange request unless you're in the middle of negotiations," Treasurer Terry Stephens said.

Still, his office had the information by the end of the day. Stephens denied that he requires requests to be in writing but said he encourages it.

Butler County

The open-records auditor in Butler County had no problem getting four of the six items. Officials at the Hamilton Police Department, city offices and county administration quickly turned over the information without pressing her for her name or other information.

She ran into problems with Hamilton City Schools, however.

Bob Hancock, treasurer of the Hamilton School District, let the auditor view his phone bill on the condition that she show him an ID. She asked him if that was necessary.

Hancock said the district insists on identification only to protect itself against possible legal action.

Hancock said he often asks people the reason for their records request, but it's not a requirement.

"I ask not so much because I want to know because sometimes people don't have a clear idea of what they want," he said. "If they tell me why they want it, I can get them the records much more quickly and more accurately."

The auditor received a copy of the treasurer's phone bill but was told Hancock's office would call her when they had gathered records on the superintendent's compensation. The call never came.

Hancock later said his staff had the records ready the next day but didn't call the auditor back because they didn't have her phone number and thought she would return.

Warren County

The Lebanon Police Department and county administration were the only agencies in Warren County that filled the open-records auditor's requests without conditions.

Lebanon City Schools and city administration officials filled three of the four other requests - but only after they were put in writing.

"I did one time Xerox about 100 copies, and it wasn't what they wanted - they had used the wrong word or something," said Mary Beth Kemmer, treasurer for the school district. Since then, she insists on written requests.

"We just want to be responsible with taxpayers' dollars," Kemmer said.

The auditor got the treasurer's phone bill once she put the request in writing, but was told it would take several days to get information on the superintendent's compensation. Documents are stored at a different location because of school construction, Kemmer said.

County commissioners' meeting minutes, on the other hand, were a breeze to get. In fact, Clerk Tina Davis volunteered to the open-records auditor that the minutes are available online and on audiocassette tapes, as well.

"We're pretty easy," Davis said recently, after learning the April request was part of a state project. "We don't have anything to hide."

E-mail candrews@enquirer.com and skemme@enquirer.com

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