Lawmakers outraged at audit#039;s findings

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, June 16, 2004

DAYTON - Outrage. Disappointment. Concern.

Ohio legislators, state officials and government watchdog groups say the results of an audit of access to public records in Ohio merit action.

Auditors requesting information from local governments, police and school districts recently were denied unconditional and prompt access to routine records nearly half of the time.

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"It would be my hope that the public becomes outraged. These are the people's records. These records were paid for with tax dollars," said House Judiciary Chairman Scott Oelslager, R-Canton.

The audit by the Ohio Coalition for Open Government took place April 21, though some auditors sought records near that date. More than 90 people from 42 newspapers, The Associated Press, two radio stations and two colleges asked to see public records in all of Ohio's 88 counties. The coalition was established by the Ohio Newspaper Association, a trade organization that represents 83 daily and 163 weekly newspapers.

Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro said that while many county and local governments operate with minimal resources, their obligation to respond to residents' requests for public information does not disappear because of their size or staffing.

"The records requested in this audit are clearly public in nature and, when available, should have been provided in a timely manner," Petro said. "I am a firm believer that our democracy thrives, in part, because of the openness of government."

The records sought included minutes from the most recent county commissioners' meeting. In each county seat, auditors asked for the mayor's or city council president's expense report, the school superintendent's and police chief's salaries and the school treasurer's most recent telephone bill. Auditors also asked for police incident reports from the most recent shift available and to get one copy.

In 4 percent of the 491 requests, local government or school officials claimed the document sought was not a public record. Auditors were denied the records in a timely manner almost 16 percent of the time.

"These results are pathetic, especially when the records requested are non-controversial, definitely open public records," Oelslager said.

Oelslager, an advocate for open government, worked with Common Cause of Ohio in 1993 to develop legislation expanding the state's open records law. He wanted to make it easier and less costly for Ohio residents to obtain public records.

The bill neared passage but died in the Senate after interest groups and former Gov. George Voinovich's administration expressed concerns about the cost of implementing the changes and the "undue burden" they could place on state agencies.

"All we can do is keep the efforts up," Oelslager said. "A key to our democracy is the public's right to be informed."

State Rep. Jon Husted, R-Kettering, said the audit results were disappointing but not surprising. Like the Ohio Coalition for Open Government auditors, Husted said he does not identify himself when seeking public records. He tries to experience the request process the same as other taxpayers.

"We all need to remember we do work for the public and the things we work on are public information," Husted said.

Some public employees are afraid their bosses will disapprove of them giving out public information, he said. Others believe that if they don't respond to the initial request, the person seeking information will just go away, Husted said.

"Everybody needs to do a better job of informing front-line staff in respect to what the law is," he said.

Republican state Sen. Jeff Jacobson of Dayton said the problem with Ohio's current public records' law is that it too often comes down to "one person trying to enforce the law against an entire bureaucracy saying 'no.'"

"You can write all the laws you want, but if you're not the one wanting the information you don't know how the law is being carried out," he said. "We need to ask what, if any, tools people need to do that, that they don't have now?"

Dwight Crum, spokesman for Republican House Speaker Larry Householder, said the audit results were unacceptable.

"We want to review the report and talk to local government groups about the findings," Crum said.

Democratic House Minority Leader Chris Redfern said organizations such as the Ohio Municipal League and the County Commissioners Association of Ohio need to better educate their members on the law.

Catherine Turcer, legislative liaison for Ohio Citizen Action _ the state's largest environmental organization _ said the audit findings were better than she would have expected. She said the Franklin County Board of Elections told her in March 2003 that a request for campaign contributions to appeals court judges from a 2002 election would have to wait six weeks, until after the May primary.

"I was appalled, six weeks," Turcer said. "This was not a complicated report. It wasn't available on a Web site. It wasn't available anyplace else."