Ironton, others in region miss mark on openness

Published 12:00 am Saturday, June 12, 2004

My mission, if I chose to accept it, and I did, was to try to put the "public" into public records.

The theme song and catch phrase from the old Mission Impossible television show were running through my head when I accepted the charge from the Ohio Associated Press to participate in a statewide open records audit in mid-April.

Nearly any record kept by a public office, whether it is in paper, computer file, film or any other form, is considered a public document. Ohio law says any person should be able to inspect public records ''promptly.'' Photocopies of that record should be available within a reasonable period of time.

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The key word is "should." As the AP auditors found out, the law does not always hold up in the real world.

Of the 528 possible responses, 37 were deemed not applicable because the record sought did not exist or the results were inconclusive. Out of the remaining 491 valid

responses, auditors were able to inspect 246 records (50.1 percent) the day on the request and 13 more (2.6 percent) by the next day.

Auditors were able to inspect 85 more records (17.1 percent) after complying with one or more conditions not required by law, such as a written request or showing proof of identity.

The auditors were denied access to records nearly a third of the time (30.2 percent). Denials fell under three categories: Procedure, personnel unavailable or not a public record.

Locally, the auditor for the county only received one of six records sought. In Jackson, two were provided that day, two more the next and two denied.

The auditors' mission was clear. Go to four government offices and ask to inspect and copy of six documents that are public but not always so accessible: the mayor's expense account, the police chief's annual salary, minutes from the most recent county commissioner meeting, a telephone bill from the school board's treasurer and the total compensation for the school superintendent, and the incident reports form the most recent police shift.

We were asked not to identify ourselves as being with the media because the press has no more rights to these documents than any other citizen.

So, I hit the road to Jackson so that no one would recognize me and skew the results, while Gallipolis Daily Tribune reporter Millissa Russell visited Lawrence County.

Each of us had similar results getting less than a third of what we sought the day of the audit.

The worst cases for both of us were at the police departments.

At the Jackson Police Department, I asked for the most recent reports and was told by a woman at the counter that they were not ready. So I asked for the prior shift.

She wanted to know what I was looking for and said I had to be specific and file a written request - with no guarantee on when the would provide it.

The officer told me I would never be allowed to just look over a whole shift. When I cited the open records law, the woman said she knew the law and they only had to provide five at a time.

I asked to speak with a supervisor and received a very curt response.

"I am a supervisor," she said. "I am the assistant police chief." At that point, I called it quits.

In Lawrence County, the Ironton Police department was equally as uncooperative.

"I went to the police department, which was an event on its own just to get in the door," Gallipolis reporter Russell said referring to the buzz-in security system. "I don't know who the woman was but she was neither helpful nor friendly."

First, Russell was told that they didn't have police reports available, only a log. Then the office worker told her that she could have a copy but it would cost $5 per page.

When a Gallipolis editor called later that day and identified himself, he was told the copies would be provided free of charge.

In Jackson, obtaining the commissioner minutes was no problem at all. The clerk was extremely helpful with no questions asked. Copies were provided free of charge.

At the mayor's office, they went 1-for-2. Administrative assistant Felicia Walls went out of her way to find the proper ordinance with the police chief's most recent salary. The mayor's expense account was another matter entirely.

Wall said that for information which is not readily available, a written request must be submitted and that they have seven days to provide it.

I asked why this was necessary, Walls said she was not exactly sure.

"They have always said we must have a written request for this," she said. "If something is at my fingertips, I will go get it."

When asked who "they" was, Walls said she was not sure but presumed it was rules from prior administrators.

Seeking two records at the school board's office, I left there empty handed. The clerk said she was busy with payroll and there was "no way" I could see either the phone bill or pay that day.

I left my name and number and she promised to call as soon as the records was ready. True to her word, she called at 8 a.m. the next day saying the documents were available.

For Russell, the police department may have been the worst experience but she was also denied four other documents.

In the mayor's office, the secretary was very friendly but, Russell said, said that the information would not be available until the following day. The county commissioners' office provided the minutes with only a few curious questions and puzzled looks, Russell said.

At the Board of Education, Russell said she had to identify herself as a reporter to make any progress. After a 10 to 15 minute wait, she was told the person she needed to speak to was in a meeting and would not be available at all that day.

So despite the open records law, many government agencies visited in these two counties were not immediately forthcoming with the key to open the records.