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Ohio auditor creates ratings for openness

“Central to the founding principle of self-governance is the ability of the public to participate; to create a partnership among the citizens of a community, some of whom have come forward in elective roles,” Ohio Auditor of State Keith Faber started out a bulletin he released in recent weeks.

“Transparency in governing makes those who serve more accountable to their fellow citizens and also fosters the exchange of ideas to increase efficiency and effectiveness with public dollars. To that end, Ohio Sunshine Laws ensure all citizens are granted the right to have broad access to government records and meetings,” he continued.

Faber was introducing a new approach he is taking in regards to reporting public records and compliance with Ohio’s existing Sunshine Laws, now utilizing a “star rating system” he calls StaRS.

The idea was announced publicly at a press conference Faber hosted with the Ohio News Media Association Executive Director Monica Neiporte a few weeks ago in Columbus.

Faber said he has made government transparency a top priority since day one. Now he’s hoping that by utilizing a rating system, he will urge governmental entities and public offices to do the same within their organizations.

I’m hopeful that it works. Call me a cynic, but I have my doubts.

After nearly 25 years in my business, I’ve come to expect most public officials to talk a good game. Sure, they love to endorse transparency and openness.

But it just never seems to work out that way.

Take police reports, for instance.

We regularly receive poorly written or suspiciously vague police incident reports from local police departments. Some larger city departments routinely release to us just a handful of reports after a busy weekend, implying they either took no reports or chose not to share them as required by law when asked.

Now, under Faber’s plan, there will be a system in which local governments are evaluated for their openness.

StaRS will reflect a rating for each public office, which not only measures compliance with Sunshine Laws, but also encourages public entities to be more open and transparent to those they serve by implementing identified best practices.

Entities receiving 2 or more stars will be given the opportunity to print an AOS StaRS certificate, highlighting their accomplishment.

Procedures outlined in the bulletin will be applied to all audit engagements with a fiscal year ending Dec. 31, 2019, and later. While testing for StaRS ratings will begin on Jan. 1, 2020, results will not be available until audits are completed later in the year. The auditor’s office solicited feedback from numerous interested parties and will continuously seek feedback for this new program.

According to his bulletin, the state auditor will be testing for statutory compliance with the Ohio Public Records Act and Ohio Open Meetings Act, and reporting those results with more emphasis. The General Assembly has empowered the public to ensure their local governments are acting transparently in carrying out the peoples’ business by creating these two self-help statutes. If a citizen believes a public office has violated either act, they can file an action in the appropriate court.

Under the plan, public entities will be assessed and graded on their openness when it comes to both release of public records and transparency in public meetings.

They may receive ratings ranging from one star, which means they meet all sunshine law requirements, to four stars, or the highest achievement in open and transparent government, which means they implemented five or more best practices recommended by the state auditor.

They also may be designated as non-compliant, which means Sunshine Law requirements are not fully achieved, and guidance will be offered.

I’ll be curious how this works out and certainly, when the evaluations come available, we’ll be watching closely and reporting on them.

I’m appreciative of the new tool and hopefully it will come in handy when evaluating whether public officials make good on their oft-made promises of openness.

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