Thursday, June 17, 2004

Public record survey stirs officials

Taft calls for better training about law

By Andrew Welsh-Huggins
The Associated Press

COLUMBUS - Gov. Bob Taft said Wednesday he was disappointed with the results of a survey that tested the ability of average Ohioans to view basic public records and said more needs to be done to educate local government officials about state open records laws.

"I was very disappointed in the lack of compliance with our public records law because that's the way that we hold public officials at all levels accountable," Taft said.

Taft says associations representing school boards, townships, county governments and others should do more to train people about the public records law.

Public employees who were asked to provide common records on an unconditional and timely basis followed Ohio law only about half the time, according to the survey by the Ohio Coalition for Open Government.

The coalition was established by the Ohio Newspaper Association, which represents 83 daily and 163 weekly newspapers.

Also Wednesday, Attorney General Jim Petro announced a partnership with the Ohio Newspaper Association to hold training seminars with records keepers and those who frequently make requests, including media organizations and interested citizens.

"Open government is a hallmark of our democracy," Petro said in a statement. "The audit conducted by newspapers across the state demonstrated that while some governments are complying with Ohio's sunshine laws, others need further training."

The Ohio School Boards Association plans to send a letter to board members across the state in the next few weeks alerting them to the survey's findings.

Some participants in the survey encountered school board policies that required written requests and allowed for response times of several days, neither of which is permitted under state law.

"We don't want to hear that boards of education are not complying with the public records law," said Hollie Reedy, a school boards association staff attorney.

A state lawmaker said the survey underscores the need to pass a bill that would require governments to provide copies of public records within 10 days of a request, or 15 days if the request is made by mail.

Sen. Marc Dann, a Youngstown Democrat, asked leaders in the GOP-controlled Senate to begin hearings on his bill, introduced more than a year ago.

Senate President Doug White said he believes a committee being established to study public records under an unrelated bill should first examine issues raised by the survey.

While Dann's bill raises important issues, it doesn't consider the big picture of problems with public records, said Sen. Kevin Coughlin, a Cuyahoga Falls Republican and chairman of the Senate State and Local Government Committee.

"The more you look at the issue, the more you realize that speed is not the only problem when it comes to public records law," Coughlin said

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