Public records are a much-discussed topic in American society. A public record generally includes all records kept by any public office. Public offices whose records are subject to review by the general public include state, county, city, village, townships and school districts.
Certain documents and information that is kept by public offices as records are not public records under the law. Illustratively, medical records of almost any sort are not considered public records.
Also, if a business applies for a grant or tax abatement based upon its technology, the government likely has a responsibility to review that technology in order to consider the grant or abatement request. However, if the technology is a trade secret, proprietary information or intellectual property, the technology’s character and description is not a public record, even if the literal record exists in the government office.
Home addresses and family information for certain public employees who may face retribution as a part of their jobs are also not public records. As a practical matter, through the internet, we can typically find out people’s addresses. However, if a prosecutor, police officer, firefighter or EMT does not desire to share his or her home address and family information, that information is required to be kept confidential by the employing public office.
If a particular document or email includes some information that is a public record and some information that is not public record, the public office is required to redact (hide with permanent marker or otherwise conceal) the information that is not a public record before providing the record to the general public. For instance, if a letter describes the wage of a firefighter as well as the firefighter’s home address, the letter is a public record with the address redacted.
Some public offices regularly destroy their records as a matter of practice for practicality reasons. Older, likely irrelevant records that simply take up space constitute a classic case. In such instance, the destroyed records are obviously not public records because the records were not kept.
With that being said, the law does not allow for intentional destruction of documents or records that are not typically or regularly destroyed. For example, if a public employee sends an embarrassing email and that public employee’s office generally retains all emails (electronically or physically in print), neither the employee nor the office can destroy that embarrassing email.
Public records can be requested by any member of the general public. The records can be inspected by the requesting person, and the requesting person may usually make copies for a fee. No fee can be charged for the time and effort used by the government office to locate the records.
A public office can ask a requesting person for his or her name and intended use of the records (to help narrow a search), but that public office has to inform the requester that that information is not required to be provided as a part of making a public records request.
Lee R. Schroeder is an Ohio licensed attorney at Schroeder Law LLC in Putnam County. He limits his practice to business, real estate, estate planning and agriculture issues in northwest Ohio. He can be reached at Lee@LeeSchroeder.com or at 419-659-2058. This article is not intended to serve as legal advice, and specific advice should be sought from the licensed attorney of your choice based upon the specific facts and circumstances that you face.