Audit: Some Athens County Officials Are More Compliant Than Others In Following Law

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Public employees asked to provide common records during a statewide test of Ohio's open records laws in April followed the law in nine of every 10 requests, according to audit results that found much higher compliance than a similar survey a decade ago.

In Athens County, like most others, compliance among officials in following the law varied from office to office and was sometimes contingent on the type of document requested. 

Records requested included meeting minutes, restaurant inspections, birth records, a mayor's expense report, school superintendents' pay, police chief pay and police incident reports.

"It's a meaningful improvement over what was found 10 years ago," said Dennis Hetzel, executive director of the Ohio Newspaper Association.

The audit was sponsored by the Ohio Coalition for Open Government of ONA. It began April 21 and, in most counties, was completed within days.

Newspaper, television and radio reporters served as auditors in all 88 Ohio counties. Auditors didn't identify themselves as reporters when making requests to ensure the same experience as a typical citizen seeking public records.

The auditor who reported on Athens County noted on her request for minutes from the Athens County Commissioners Office, "The Athens County Commissioners meet weekly, but the last minutes in the book provided was from April 1. The clerk told me they hadn't had time to get the minutes typed and in the book. They were very courteous and helpful. Invited me to attend meetings. Both clerks in the office were exceptionally cooperative."

The Athens City-County Health Department was emailed for access to documents restaurant inspections and birth records for a specified time. The auditor reported not receiving a reply to the request. 

Emails were also sent to the county for its public records and public records retention policies and no response was given.  

When the auditor requested documentation showing Athens Police Chief Tom Pyle's salary, the record was not made available by the city. 

"I had to write out a public record's request and the clerk said she could not promise that I would be provided with the information. I reminded her it was public record but she still stated she could not promise the information would be given to me," the auditor reported. "I called two days later and the request was not ready."

The auditor was also forced to file a public records request for Mayor Paul Wiehl's most recent expense report. 

"(I) was given the same answer for this that there was no guarantee that I would be able to view the records. Called two days later and still not ready for me to pick up or to review," the auditor noted.

Athens' public records request policy was emailed to the auditor within two days of its request. No response was made when the city's public records retention policy was requested.

Inside the Athens Police Department, the auditor had no problem acquiring the recent incident reports filed.

"The officer was very receptive to allowing me access to reports and answered any questions that I asked of him," the auditor reported. "He suggested I get on their email list so I could get copies of all reports. I told him that wouldn't be necessary as I was only curious as to how the police department handled incident reports. He gave me a phone number in case I had other questions. He allowed me access to all incident reports even the ones from 2013. Very courteous and cooperative."

On the other hand, Athens City Schools did not comply with the law.

"I was not allowed to view any documents. The treasurer told me he could not allow me to view the records due to social security numbers on the documents. I told him to redact them and he said he couldn't print them out, but would give me the figures I had asked for. He seemed kind of 'put out' by the fact I had asked for these records. He wasn't very cooperative although I told him the information was public records, he still would not allow me to look at them. He just gave me the figures of the salary," noted the auditor when requesting to see documents related to the superintendent's salary.

The auditor received a similar response when asking for the school's financial expenditure report.

"Again, I was forced to say this is public record, but he would not allow me to look at the records. I was not allowed to view any documents … He wasn't very cooperative although I told him the information was public record, he still would not allow me to look at them."

As a whole, Athens County did not waiver from its denial rate from studies in 2004 to the most recent audit, staying at 33 percent. 

Overall, 90 percent of requests in Ohio were granted either immediately, over time or with some conditions, compared with 70 percent a decade ago, according to audit results. The improvement was illustrated by requests for superintendents' salaries, with compliance rising from about one of every two requests to nine of every 10 requests this year.

The attorney general's office, which conducts mandatory three-hour public records training for Ohio elected officials, regularly reminds officials of the law regarding requests, said Damian Sikora, chief of the office's Constitutional Offices Section.

"Sometimes there's a little bit of a disconnect between some of the people taking the request and the office holders themselves," he said.

State Auditor David Yost, whose office randomly samples municipalities' open records compliance, said he was troubled not to see 100 percent compliance with requests for things such as a superintendent's compensation or police chief's pay.

"Those are just things that there's really no excuse not to be promptly responsive to," Yost said.

The audit turned up some problems with the delivery of information electronically, with many auditors having trouble finding useable email addresses in rural counties.

The audit follows a decade of uneven developments for advocates of open records.

Ohio's 2004 concealed weapons law, for example, shielded the names of permit holders but contained a generous provision for reporters. Lawmakers later restricted the law to allow reporters to view the records but not make copies.

In 2005, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that state employees' home addresses may be kept private because they don't meet the definition of a record under state open records laws.

The following year, a divided court said that private organizations are not subject to open records laws without clear evidence they are equivalent to a public office. The case involved a Summit County halfway house that receives most of its funding from taxpayers.

More recently, lawsuits have challenged Gov. John Kasich's creation of the state development department with JobsOhio, a privatized job creation office not subject to the open records laws.