Public records are supposed to be public. That might seem like stating the obvious, but access to government documents in Ohio has sometimes proved to be problematic for the media as well as the general public.
The situation appears to have improved greatly, however, according to a recent audit sponsored by the Ohio Coalition for Open Government of the Ohio Newspaper Association. The audit, which was conducted in all 88 counties in April, showed that public employees followed the law in nine of every 10 public records' requests. That's a considerably higher rate of compliance than a survey undertaken a decade ago. See a story on the audit on Page 15.
The improved accessibility could be a result of training and educational opportunities available to public employees and public officials, which has helped them become more responsive to records requests. The passing of time also may have encouraged a change in the culture of local governments, with public employees becoming less defensive -- or protective -- about making public records available to those seeking them.
Newspaper, TV and radio reporters served as auditors for the ONA, but did not identify themselves as media representatives to avoid receiving preferential treatment. Any citizen can request public records for any reason, without identification, a written request or even giving a name.
Records requested included meeting minutes, restaurant inspections, birth records, a mayor's expense report, school superintendents' pay, police chief pay and police incident reports. The response to the requests, in general, was positive and the items sought were shared in a timely fashion.
Overall, 90 percent of requests were granted either immediately, over time or with some conditions, compared with 70 percent a decade ago, according to audit results. "It's a meaningful improvement over what was found 10 years ago," said Dennis Hetzel, executive director of the ONA.
The audit wasn't without glitches, however. Several school districts required auditors to fill out a public records request form, a violation of Ohio law which does not require a written request, identification or providing a reason for the request. In rural Clinton County, a clerk filled a request for county commissioners' meeting minutes but summoned a sheriff's deputy after the auditor declined to identify himself.
Still, the results as a whole were positive, which is good news for open government in Ohio. There's always room for improvement, of course; it would be wonderful if the next audit showed a 100 percent rate of compliance.
The public has a right to know what's going on in government -- secrecy is a breeding ground for potential abuse -- and access to public documents is vital.
The results of the ONA audit provide a welcome indication that local governments in Ohio are getting the message: Public means public.