According to an audit done in late April of this year by several Ohio news organizations and the Ohio Coalition for Open Government, Fayette County responses are well in compliance with public records requests as most requests were responded to the same day, if not immediately.
The auditors were sent out to different counties and asked to request records for the county commissioner meetings, executive expenses, police chief compensation, police incident reports, superintendent compensation, and the school treasurer’s phone records. Each auditor was sent to an unfamiliar county so that requests would be responded to as they would to an “average citizen” without bias.
The audit was done as a follow-up to an audit in 2004 to see how compliant the state and local governments were when responding to public records requests. According to Dennis Hetzel, the executive director of the Ohio Newspaper Association, the response times were “a meaningful improvement over what was found 10 years ago.”
Overall throughout the 88 counties of Ohio, 90 percent of requests were granted either immediately, over time, or with some conditions. Compared to the 70 percent response in 2004, the audit showed an overall improvement of 20 percent when it comes to compliance.
Auditors were sent to request records in person and via email. While in-person requests were responded to resoundingly well, the Internet requests proved to be more difficult throughout the state. According to an article by the Associated Press, State Auditor David Yost was troubled not to see 100 percent compliance with requests.
Several auditors had trouble finding usable, if any, email addresses where record requests could be sent.
The only requests that were not returned within the same day in the Fayette County audit were the approved minutes for the County Commissioners. However, the request was made on Monday, April 21 and the Commissioners don’t approve the prior week’s minutes until later in the day. Tuesday is the latest that the prior week’s minutes from the Commissioners can be received, so there was no neglect on the part of the responding officials.
The Fayette County website (www.fayette-co-oh.com) has links to all county offices, and from there email addresses are easily found.
Fayette County did not fare so well in the 2004 audit. In 2004, the County had a 33 percent denial rate when it came to responses. Out of the six requests made to Fayette County officials, two were granted conditionally and two were completely denied.
While Fayette County was on the better end of the 2004 audit compared to most Ohio counties, the denial and delay is still something that needed to be worked on. In this year’s audit, Fayette County responded with a zero percent denial, and responded much quicker than in 2004.
In comparison, Greene County who also had a 33 percent denial rate in 2004 actually increased their denial rate to 60 percent. Greene denied two of the six requests and didn’t respond at all to one request.
The key to requesting public records is to understand section 149.43 of the Ohio Revised Code. A downloadable copy of the “Yellow Book” manual of Sunshine laws is available on the Attorney General’s website.
Most requests can be made verbally — there is no need to identify yourself or explain the reason for your request, but requests that are “overly broad” can and will be denied. When requesting records, it is best to be as specific as possible; provide names, date ranges, topics, and completely describe the records desired. If any requests are denied or if information is redacted, then an explanation in writing must be provided.
Ohio is one of several states that has no set deadline for when a records request must be responded to — generally over two weeks is regarded as unreasonable, but all that is required is a “prompt” response.