We help in ONA statewide audit to gauge government transparency

Last updated: June 12. 2014 11:54AM - 438 Views
By - cwasmundt@civitasmedia.com

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It seems public records in Lorain County are just that.

The Ohio Newspaper Association and its members audited county and city offices all across the state on April 21 and 22 to see just how well government follows rules about transparency.

The effort marks the 10th anniversary of the first Freedom of Information audit by the ONA.

Civitas Media spearheaded the project in Lorain County, making requests for police reports, city budgets, school financials, and more — then the ONA spent the past six weeks going over the data.

We found offices here were highly compliant with the state’s Sunshine Laws, which require public institutions to be open.

The Amherst News-Times, Oberlin News-Tribune, and Wellington Enterprise weekly newspapers have a hyperlocal focus on our small communities. However, ensuring our continued access to public documents is so crucial to our reporting that we could not pass up the chance to help with the audit.

Overall, information in Lorain County was freely given to this reporter in person.

That’s a huge success, since roughly half of the same information was denied to reporters here during the ONA’s 2004 project.

A request for Lorain County commissioners’ meeting minutes was filled immediately. The same was true for most of the city of Elyria’s documents.

When I set out to Elyria city hall to see the mayor’s most recent expense report and a city budget listing that included the police chief’s salary, a clerk asked for my name and what news outlet it was for.

Reporters were trained to give very little personal information when asking for the public records. That’s because the law states anyone who requests public documents — media or not — does not have to give their name or say what they intend to do with the information.

The clerk asked for a written request. The law says written requests can be made, but are not required. Verbal requests must also be filled in Ohio.

After a short wait, I was told mayor Holly Brinda did not have an expense report because she personally covered all her purchases.

City staffers also said the person who could provide the budget document was unavailable at the time but that it would be provided later in the day.

Incident reports from the Elyria police department were also part of the audit. They were provided on the spot.

Next, I asked the Elyria Schools for a budget listing the superintendent’s salary as well as the treasurer’s most recent expense reimbursement form.

Though the district staff did not give a formal budget document, a hand-written note with the superintendent’s 2013-2014 salary was provided. A reimbursement form was also handed over.

When it came to requests made by e-mail instead of face-to-face, information wasn’t as free-flowing.

Following the in-person requests, reporters statewide also made online inquiries to county health departments for restaurant inspection and citation files and birth records.

E-mails were also sent to find the public records policies and the records retention schedules for city and county offices.

There were no responses to the health department requests.

Both the Elyria and county public records policies and retention schedules were provided within 48 hours.

Overall, 64 of the state’s 88 counties performed well and gave the all the requested information.

That’s leaps and bounds better than the just five that complied in 2004.

This year’s worst offenders were Crawford, Montgomery, and Scioto counties, which denied access 67 percent of the time.

In regard to neighboring counties, Medina and Erie both gave 100 percent of the files requested. Cuyahoga County only provided 60 percent of the information.

Caitlyn Wasmundt may be reached at 440-988-2801 or on Twitter @LC_CaitW.

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