How did Wood County do? PDF Print E-mail
Written by TARA KELLER, Sentinel Staff Writer   
Wednesday, 11 June 2014 08:35
ohio-public-records_story
Photo Illustration: Charlie Zimkus/The Columbus Dispatch
If a 3-year-old child asks the Bowling Green Police Department for incident reports, the Freedom of Information Act ensures those reports must be given.
Age, purpose and identity aren't necessary to receive public information from government offices, as stated in Ohio's Sunshine Laws.
And while many 3-year-olds aren't interested in government matters, most citizens are.
To protect these interested citizens, the Ohio Coalition for Open Government partnered with the Ohio Newspaper Association and the Ohio Association of Broadcasters to audit local government agencies.
"It's very valuable work," Dennis Hetzel, ONA executive director, said during an audit training. "And in my role as an ONA lobbyist, I can also tell you it might make some improvements in the public records law, depending on the findings."
On April 21 and 22, journalists from Ohio's 88 counties requested public information from offices like local school districts, police departments, city halls and county commissioners' offices.
This year, as a Sentinel-Tribune intern and a person not recognizable by many local officials, I was asked to be Wood County's auditor.
The rules were simple - I couldn't let people know I was auditing them, and I needed to stick to the script I was given.
"Remember, we're not trying to get the records," said Bill Reader, audit coordinator and an Ohio University journalism professor. "We're just trying to see how easy or hard it is to get the records."
Reader's goal was realized. Out of the four agencies I went to, half were easy and half were difficult.
I stopped at the Bowling Green City Schools Administrative Offices first.
There, I asked the designated employee for the current salary of Superintendent Ann McVey and the treasurer's most recent expense reimbursement form.
Upon asking who I was and why I wanted the information, I responded that I was not obligated by law to say.
"Many of you are going to be denied," Reader said. "And that's not a point to argue with them or try to school them in the law or anything. Just be prepared to walk away."
The employee didn't directly deny me.
She provided McVey's salary, but not the recent expense reimbursement form. The employee told me she was confused by my request and gave me a blank one instead.
She appeared frazzled by my lack of identification, but I was following the law by not giving it.
Plus, breaking character, or lack thereof, would defeat the purpose of the audit.
"That would be akin to basically a restaurant critic going in and everybody knowing that the restaurant critic is there," Reader said.
Of the 88 auditors, 7 percent were declined their superintendent's salary and 9 percent were denied the treasurer's recent expense reimbursement form in their counties.
This reflects a drastic decrease from 2004 audit findings of 46 percent and 51 percent, respectively.
The Bowling Green Police Department was next.
Upon asking Emily Snyder, BGPD dispatcher, for "the incident reports from the shift of officers that most recently filed them," I was met with questions that, legally, didn't need to be asked.
"You have to know what you're looking for before you come in here," Snyder said after I told her I didn't have to identify myself.
After I repeated my records request, she fulfilled it.
Of all the auditors, 15 percent were denied incident reports.
The audit from 2004's audit reported a 27 percent denial rate.
"Be patient. Recognize that not all these places are going to be cooperative. Some are going to be hostile," Reader said. "Expect the worst and be pleasantly surprised with the best."
While the first half of my audit was met with negative attitude and questions, the second half lived up to Reader's "pleasantly surprised" prediction.
At Bowling Green City Hall, I was given the police chief's salary and Mayor Dick Edwards' most recent expense report, no questions asked.
Other auditors were not as successful.
They reported a 10 percent denial rate for a police chief's salary and a 17 percent denial rate for expense reports. The denials reflected a decrease from 2004 numbers of 20 percent and 27 percent, respectively.
The results clearly show some agencies are either not aware of the law, or simply chose to not follow it.
"All the things you're asking for, we believe, are unequivocally public record," Hetzel said.
The lead auditors didn't solely rely on that belief. Attorneys pre-approved the requests to ensure they were public.
At the Wood County commissioners' office, I was promptly given the latest meeting minutes.
Account clerk Lauren Schall was especially courteous and cooperative. I requested the documents, she printed off upwards of 12 pages free of charge, and politely asked if I needed anything else.
With the in-person audit completed and results uploaded, I then sent email requests out to the same public agencies with different requests.
Within 24 hours, all requests were emailed in.
Overall, compliance was much better than 10 years ago, Hetzel and Reader said in an email.
Perhaps in another 10 years, intern auditors, average citizens, and even 3-year-old crime-prevention enthusiasts will help agencies realize public records are just that - public.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 11 June 2014 11:54
 

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