When it comes to providing access to public records to the people they work for, Ohio public employees are doing a better job.
In recent compliance checks conducted around the state, clerks, nine out of 10 times, provided common records like meeting minutes, restaurant inspections, birth records, mayors financial data, salary information and police incident reports.
That is worthy of applause, considering that a decade ago, a similar audit resulted in a compliance rate of only 70 percent.
But while the increase is encouraging, the results show that some public records holders still don’t get it.
In some places, requesters were asked to identify themselves, which is not required under Ohio Public Records laws. Others were asked why they wanted the records, again, not required.
And, in some cases records weren’t provided until after considerable delay, or at all.
Dennis R. Hetzel, executive director of the Ohio Newspaper Association, said the results should be kept in perspective.
“The results show that specific items that are inarguably public records are easier to access than 10 years ago,” he said. “That’s good, but that’s all it shows.”
State Auditor Dave Yost said he was troubled that requests for routine public records, like superintendents’ and police chiefs’ pay records, were denied in some places.
He said there is no excuse for not providing such public information promptly.
We would hope any hesitation in turning over public records was because a clerk was confused about a request, not due to their ignorance of what is, or isn’t, a public record.
Granted, it’s not always easy to keep up with the law.
The Legislature is constantly watering down what was considered a strong public records law by adding more exempt records to the list. Hetzel says exceptions create ambiguities in the law and make it harder to gain access to information.
The Ohio Supreme Court has also done harm to the public’s right to know through its rulings, one of which severely limits the rewarding of attorney fees for a party which has to fight to obtain a public record.
Such actions can have a chilling effect on those who seeking public documents.
Changing technology, especially with the Internet, has also created obstacles for some government offices. Some reporters encountered unusable e-mail addresses or found outdated websites for governmental offices.
Officeholders would serve their communities better by making sure their employee e-mail addresses are current and their websites are functioning. Providing more public records online can save an office time and expense, plus make it more convenient for the person seeking them.
Despite the audit results, we must do better.
Part of the reason for improved compliance may be due to public records training that is now offered for elected officials. The three-hour seminars, offered through the Attorney General’s Office, should be required of all employees who handle public record requests.
Anyone who works for the public is in a special position as a keeper of the peoples’ records. An important job responsibility is to know public records law and understand how it applies to their office. Failure to know and follow the law can never be a valid excuse.