Response to records requests not good enough

The good news for Ohioans is that public officials seem to be following the state’s open records law much better than was the case several years ago.

But the bad news is that sometimes, Buckeye State residents still are refused access to documents. That is unacceptable.

Journalists fanned out throughout Ohio this spring, in an open records “audit” conducted through the state Coalition for Open Government. Public officials were asked in all 88 counties to provide documents and information covered under the state open records law.

Ninety percent of the requests were filled. That is a dramatic improvement from 10 years ago, when a similar audit found just 70 percent compliance.

A nine-out-of-10 success rate sounds good – unless you happen to be the Ohioan told he cannot be given information he has every right to see.

In some cases, public officials and their subordinates just don’t think it is any of the public’s business how taxpayers’ money is spent. For example, one piece of information sought in the audit 10 years ago was school superintendents’ salaries. Reporters asking for the amount were rejected half the time.

Fortunately, the record on that is much better now, at 90 percent. Still, why shouldn’t those who pay superintendents’ salaries know what 10 percent of them are taking home?

Training on the open records law is mandatory for all elected officials in Ohio. There is no excuse for them to break the law.

In many cases, however, subordinates who may not be familiar with open records rules receive requests from the public and press. In one case this spring, a clerk in Clinton County was asked for minutes of a county commissioners’ meeting. When the reporter refused to give his name, the clerk called for a sheriff’s deputy.

There is no requirement that someone seeking a public document provide his or her name. Likewise, there is no requirement that forms requesting records be filled out – though journalists this spring were told in several school districts they had to do so.

A substantial amount of trouble with open records laws could be avoided if elected officials simply educated their subordinates. Clearly, that needs to happen more often.

But whether problems result from lack of education on open records rules or willful refusal to obey them, the fact is that the law is the law. Most public records are supposed to be available simply for the asking.

Where that is not the case, Ohioans should be very upset, perhaps to the point of voting out of office those who tell them the public’s business is none of their business.