County scores 100% compliance
From its schools districts to its courthouse offices, Washington County received a 100 percent compliance rating for public records requests in a recent statewide audit, a significant improvement from just a 17 percent compliance rating in 2004.
A total of 14 separate types of records that fall under the Freedom of Information Act’s protection for any member of the public to view were audited in each of Ohio’s 88 counties by anonymous auditors, both in person and via email. In addition, records were requested from 16 other public agencies separately by The Marietta Times.
Surrounding counties also showed a vast improvement in compliance, with Noble County increasing its compliance rating from 60 to 83 percent; Monroe County increasing from zero to 100 percent; and Morgan County increasing from 33 to 83 percent.
In 2014, 90 percent of records were granted overall across the state, compared to 70 percent granted in 2004, according to the Associated Press.
Public school districts across Washington, Noble, Morgan and Monroe counties saw generally high rates of granted requests, but like some county and city offices, some of the more rural districts had difficulties with email requests.
In-person requests for superintendent compensation and treasurer expense reports at Marietta, Wolf Creek, Warren, Frontier, Noble Local, Caldwell Exempted and Switzerland of Ohio were all granted within one day.
At Frontier Local Schools, board policy includes space to provide a name and reason to make a public records request, which are both pieces of information prohibited by law unless the person making the request is told first that the information is not required.
The auditor there seeking information was not told she did not have to provide it, as the law requires.
Board policy notes that the requester is to be informed ahead of time that providing that information is not necessary. The omission during the audit was likely simply a mistake, said Frontier Local Treasurer Frank Antill.
“We don’t get many in-person requests, so we don’t typically have that issue, and normally someone wants something for a specific reason, and we ask for it because it can better help us find it,” said Frank Antill, treasurer of Frontier Local. “Our secretaries are all trained to tell someone that they don’t need to provide that information, and in the future we plan on making sure they are better informed of that if someone forgot.”
At both Switzerland of Ohio and Caldwell Exempted school districts, email requests for district public records policies and retention schedules were not answered and records were not provided.
Caldwell Exempted Treasurer Jeff Croucher said he double-checked the email forum to see if emails had been missed, but found no record of an email, and blamed the possibility of a technology glitch.
“I will certainly check to see if there’s an issue, because if others are trying to do that and it doesn’t go through that’s not good for the district,” he said.
Caldwell Exempted’s in-person requests were granted in a timely fashion, and Croucher said he is very aware of Sunshine laws and strives to make sure they are followed.
“I’m a big proponent of transparency because I’m a taxpayer so I want to know where my money goes, too,” he said. “I do not ask for their name, and we keep a record of everything we send out.”
In Belpre, in-person requests were sent via email seven days later, and district treasurer Melissa Griffith said she is the only person trained to take care of requests.
“I was a little confused about exactly what was needed, but I got the information as soon as possible,” she said. “With the Sunshine law, we know people can just come in for the information without saying anything else, but it really helps to have it in writing so we know exactly what they need.”
One of the highest performing county offices across the state was the county commissioners’ offices, as 95.5 percent of requests made for the most recent meeting minutes of the commissioners were granted immediately.
Auditors in Washington, Monroe and Noble counties all reported an immediate and “no questions asked” response from respective offices, with Monroe’s report showing a significant improvement since 2004.
“I’m not sure what it could be other than increased awareness,” said Monroe County Commissioner Carl Davis. “As far as the people here in 2004, it’s a complete turnover since then, and there’s been more public records training and increased knowledge of what you have do.”
Davis said though the clerk is solely in charge of handling all records requests, all the commissioners are trained to fill in as much as possible in her absence.
In Morgan County, the auditor was not able to obtain the minutes, and instead was directed to another building because the clerk no longer kept them. As a member of the media, the auditor did note that as part of the job he regularly receives the minutes when he requests them.
Health departments, where auditors sought restaurant inspections and birth records, were mostly compliant in directing information, but many auditors experienced lag times, especially in regards to email requests.
The Washington County Health Department responded via email immediately, but it took seven days from the initial email, where the request had to be forwarded several times, before a response came about where the information could be found.
Health department officials noted that if the email is sent directly to a staff member and that person is out of the office, it can be difficult to ensure that the email finds its way to someone else who can respond.
In both the Morgan and Monroe County departments, auditors received no email response at all, something some auditors attributed to a lack of Internet usage in rural areas.
In Noble County, birth records and restaurant inspections were not available because none had been recorded recently, and response times via email were made by the next day and the third day after the initial request, respectively.
Auditors also requested county public records policies and retention schedules, and both Washington and Noble counties were granted within one day. In both Morgan and Monroe counties, it took four days after the email request was made to receive records.
Requests were made via email for the county seat’s city public records policy and retention schedules, and in-person requests were made to view the city executive’s most recent expense report.
In Washington County, the Marietta executive expense reports were granted within one day and no extra inquiries were made besides being asked for a number to be reached at later.
In Noble County, Caldwell executive expense reports were immediately granted but the auditor experienced being greeted with a “suspicious” and “inquisitive” response.
Ruth Hayes, who works in the office of the Noble County Commissioners, said in small communities, it is hard not to run into things like that.
“We know we are to do it in a kindly manner, and it’s a requirement by law, so that’s what we try to do,” she said. “But there’s not a lot in my office, so I’m the usually the person to handle it.”
In McConnelsville in Morgan County and in Woodsfield in Monroe County, officials granted expense report information immediately.
For email requests, the same trend followed, as Washington and Noble county municipalities both granted requests within one day, and Morgan and Monroe municipalities granted requests after four days.
Marietta City Auditor Sherri Hess said training has increased across the board over the past decade for public records requests, but said some people might run into issues in rural areas if it does not appear that getting the request is urgent.
“In my mind, if I call a place and want something, I need it now, so when someone calls and requests something, I want to get it to them as quickly as possible and make it a priority,” she said. “But if they’re not in a big hurry, it might take a little time to get it because you have so much else to do.”
Hess said Marietta cross-trains all employees in her offices to understand how to direct requests, but not all municipalities are able to do that.
“Not very often do people come in here asking for that,” she said. “You could go four or five months without anything, then you get a few people in all at once.”