Warren to write public records policy after audit

Jon public records audit April 2014

WARREN, Ohio (WKBN) — Warren City Records Commission Chairman Bob Plant told WKBN he is scheduled to write a city public records policy next week with Warren Law Director Greg Hicks, Mayor William Franklin and Safety Director Enzo Cantalamessa after an audit found improper handling of two public records requests.

WKBN’s public records audit of Warren in late April found an incorrect response to a request for two documents: the city’s public records policy and public records retention policy. The initial email request was answered with an email stating that Plant, responsible for answering such requests, was on vacation that week.

Under Ohio’s public records law, any government office, not a specific person, should be responsible for handling records requests, according to Ohio University Associate Journalism Professor Bill Reader.

The woman to whom the initial requests were directed has since resigned.

Plant said that the city did not have a public records policy at the time of the request, meaning that even if he had been in the office, the record could not be given.

“We need to create an in-house policy should we ever get a request and I’m not available,” Plant said.

Plant said he wants the operations of the city to be transparent for the public.

“They should be able to get those records without any undue problems,” Plant said.

WKBN tested public records compliance at a variety of government agencies that serve Trumbull County as a whole and received zero denials, reflecting a statewide trend of improvement found by the Ohio Associated Press this spring. The audit found that government officials in the state of Ohio denied 10% of public records requests during the 2014 audit, as compared to 30% during the 2004 audit.

No one denied auditors, all members of the media who did not identify themselves to government workers, at agencies serving Mahoning and Columbiana Counties as well. In 2004, local governments denied 25% of records requests in Mahoning County, compared to 40% in both Trumbull and Columbiana Counties.

WKBN’s in-person portion of the audit included stops at Warren City Hall, the Warren City Schools office, Warren Police Department and Trumbull County Commissioner’s Office. It also included requests from the county health department, city hall, school district administrative office and the Trumbull County Clerk of Courts via email. All offices in Warren complied in responding to requests for records.

Warren Deputy Auditor Nancy Ruggieri handled WKBN’s request for the city police chief’s salary and the mayor’s most recent expense reimbursement forms. She said she thought nothing of the encounter.

“It’s their right to see the information,” Ruggieri said. “Everything has to be above board and open for everyone to hear about it.”

Confusion about to the nature of the requests caused the only problems in our local audit. For example, the Warren City School District offices could not handle an original request for reimbursement forms from the district treasurer, saying they did not keep that data. They later produced the closest equivalent document they had.

If there ever is a dispute between two parties over a public record, it often winds up going to Damian Sikora, the Chief of the Constitutional Offices section of the Ohio Attorney General’s office, or one of his colleagues in the AG’s Public Records Unit. That office then decides if the record in question should be given or withheld, although most disputes are resolved by clarification before getting to that stage, Sikora said.

According to documents obtained from the AG’s office by WKBN, the Public Records Unit oversaw six cases of public records mediation from people in the Warren area in 2012. Two were resolved prior to mediation and the other four deemed inappropriate for mediation.

The unit also oversaw two cases regarding Youngstown that year, one in which the person wanting the record was in Youngstown and one in which the records were kept in Youngstown. The board resolved both prior to mediation. The unit also resolved three cases involving Youngstown in 2013 prior to mediation.

There have been no cases involving Warren or Youngstown in 2014 at the time of WKBN’s request for the records in early May.

Warren City Law Director Greg Hicks said that those numbers do not mean anything for Warren in terms of public records request compliance since they did not involve problems with the city government. In addition, five of the six cases from 2012 involved the same individual making public records requests.

“You’ll find individuals who have a cause . . . or some purpose inundate certain agencies with requests to the point where you’re going to get some resistance,” Hicks said. “We’ve had to go to court to tell a person, ‘By law, I can’t tell you this.'” Hicks did not say that was true in the five 2012 cases.

Sikora also noted that more mediation requests seem to come from areas in which his unit does presentations on public records law.

“That’s been sort of our campaign goal on this…getting the word out to anybody we can,” Sikora said.

Hicks said one change that he has seen lately in public records request is the tendency to ask for a large amount of records in a short amount of time. He said that with news outlets pushing to break stories, and the ease and convenience of finding documents online, some requesters seem to expect public officials to fulfill their requests before doing their jobs.

Sikora noted that the task of retrieving public records has become tougher than ever due to the sheer quantity of information that now has to be kept by local governments.

“Because of computerization, because of electronics, one expects more quicker,” Hicks said. “We do not have to make a record if one does not already exist.”

Overall, both Hicks and Sikora believe that public records law compliance is improving in Ohio.

Sikora pointed to House Bill 9, passed in 2006, as a reason for the improvement. The bill provided a way to train lawmakers on how to comply with public records law. He also credited the Attorney General’s office with its efforts for getting out the word about public records.

“In past police administrations, there was more of an issue for some reason of resistance to cooperate with the media. With this current police administration, I don’t see that at all,” Hicks said. “In the past there was some . . . ‘Why? Why do I have to give it to them?’ As opposed to now, it’s, ‘Hey, that’s what they’re entitled to, give it to them.'”

Ruggieri, Sikora and Hicks all said Ohio’s public records laws help people keep an eye on their governments and help keep those governments accountable.

“It holds public officials accountable for their actions,” Sikora said. “I can’t emphasize enough how important it is for the general public to have a general understanding of what their rights are and what they have a right to know.”

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