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Officials must ensure #039;public records#039; are in fact public

Just call me John Q. Taxpayer. When it comes to accessing public records that is exactly who I, and any other member if the media, am.

We are not afforded any special privileges that other citizens do not receive.

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.

These include police reports, meeting minutes, phone records, expense accounts, salary breakdowns, budgets, phone bills and much more. Ohio law says any person should be able to inspect public records ''promptly" and make copies for a reasonable fee.

But, sadly, many officials are hesitant to put the key "public" element into public records.

I don't believe that public officials intend to hide anything from the community, rather the problems stem from a lack of understanding of the laws.

When asking for police reports recently, one local official told me, "No, we don't give those out." Wrong answer.

Providing these documents is not optional. We don't seek them to embarrass anyone or stir up trouble. The purpose is to simply show people what goes on in their community and how their tax dollars are being spent.

Once I outline this, I was told that, "There really isn't anything of interest that goes on here." Sorry, try again.

That determination should be left to the public to decide.

Another excuse we often hear is that there are no reports or that the documents aren't ready after several days. We are not buying that one either and neither should you.

Even the smallest of police departments fills out a couple of reports a week. And the law states that records must be available within a reasonable amount of time. More than a day seems unreasonable.

I believe things have gotten better since last year's Ohio Associated Press' statewide open records audit that returned failing grades.

Last year, dozens of newspapers all across the state of Ohio performed an audit of public records. Of the hundreds of records requested throughout the state's 88 counties, only about half of the requests were granted.

This is unacceptable and we hope the state will take steps to correct this problem. Fortunately, things are not that bad here but we do have some ground to cover.

So, we need each and every concerned citizen to help us fight for your rights.

Tell your elected officials, police officers and government employees that you won't stand for them keeping the door closed on open records.

Michael Caldwell is the managing editor at The Ironton Tribune. To reach him, call (740) 532-1445 ext. 24 or by e-mail at mike.caldwell@irontontribune.com.