Every now and again, I get a call from a reader who asks me to look up a public record on their behalf because they are afraid their local government or school district will either not release it, or will retaliate for their inquisitiveness.
On the other hand, I know many citizens who make a regular habit of requesting public records, trusting their rights are protected under state law.
In decades past, public officials were less inclined to follow the law as they are today. There was a time when only attorneys, news media and government agencies could generally be guaranteed access to public records — though I can say from experience that members of the media were not always served.
Government agencies were not assured of access either: In 2012, Ohio Auditor Dave Yost announced only 60 percent of 247 cities in Ohio complied with his office’s request for payroll records. He questioned how the average citizen could expect compliance with the law when his office’s requests were not honored.
This week, March 11 to 18, is Sunshine Week, a national initiative started in 2005 by the American Society of News Editors and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
Since journalists began focusing on compliance, public interest in open government has grown to the point that state auditors routinely check compliance with public records law when performing audits.
This year, Yost reports that compliance is improving.
A March 11 press release from his office states non-compliance citations have decreased over the last two years, from 8 percent of about 4,500 audits in 2016 down to 5.5 percent of 4,800 audits in 2017.
"The majority of citations stemmed from officials neglecting to attend state-required public records trainings, entities lacking public records policies or a failure to make the policy readily available to employees and the general public," the release states.
Very few citations involved failure to release records.
In 2014, the Ohio Coalition for Open Government organized a statewide "audit" of compliance with public records law. It was performed by members of the media, including myself, 10 years after journalists had conducted the first statewide survey.
The 2014 survey involved members of the media asking public agencies for specific records such as meeting minutes, payroll and telephone records, police incident reports and records of public officials’ expenses.
The 2014 survey found 90 percent compliance, versus 70 percent compliance in 2004.
Today, the general public can be confident — for the most part — that public records will be made available.
While the bold and fearless citizen will likely not have problems getting records the public is entitled to today, the fact that I still get phone calls on the subject shows not every member of the public is so confident.
When I helped with the 2014 Coalition for Open Government audit, I found one community that complied with state law, but in a way that I suspect would be intimidating to the average citizen.
My encounter started as I spoke with a clerk on the other side of a plexiglass window in the atrium of a small Geauga County police department. I asked for police reports for a certain day and said I would rather not identify myself or fill out a written request.
The reports for that day were not available, but I was invited to review them in a closet-sized room, with the chief of police sitting opposite me at a small table. The records were made available and I didn’t have to identify myself, but would the average citizen have felt comfortable trying to stay anonymous with the chief of police just five feet away, watching as they looked through files?
Since the first media survey in 2014, Ohio lawmakers have worked to improve accountability. In addition to including compliance in state audits, public officials or their delegates are now required to attend training on public records law.
The state has also instituted a low-cost, convenient way to settle disputes over public records. Complaints over access to public records can be made online through the Ohio Court of Claims (https://ohiocourtofclaims.gov/). The filing fee for a complaint is $25 and the website offers a wide-ranging question and answer section regarding the public’s right to records.
I’ve found that public officials in most towns I work with understand the law regarding public records and are accustomed to satisfying public records requests.
But it’s also incumbent on the public to exercise their rights.
In other words, use it, or lose it, people.
Eric Marotta can be reached at 330-541-9433, or firstname.lastname@example.org.