November 25, 2014

Medina
Mostly cloudy
31°F

Public records audit finds violations, officials call them errors

A public records audit, sponsored by the Ohio Coalition for Open Government, a branch of the Ohio Newspaper Association, was conducted in late April by print and broadcast journalists from across Ohio. The Gazette performed the audit in Erie County. (AP ILLUSTRATION)

A public records audit, sponsored by the Ohio Coalition for Open Government, a branch of the Ohio Newspaper Association, was conducted in late April by print and broadcast journalists from across Ohio. The Gazette performed the audit in Erie County. (AP ILLUSTRATION)

The Medina County commissioners’ office improperly required a name to be given to access public records during a statewide audit of public accessibility conducted in April.

Under Ohio’s public records law, there is no requirement for a person requesting public records to provide a name.

When the auditor, a reporter from The Gazette’s sister paper, The Chronicle-Telegram, asked to review the minutes of a recent commissioners meeting in April, the person fulfilling the request said that a name was necessary in order to review public records. The reporter’s name was written in a log book and a copy of the minutes was provided.

County Administrator Chris Jakab acknowledged the clerk made a mistake, saying that while the county does keep a log of public records requests, a name isn’t required to review public documents.

“It’s not our policy and it was an error,” he said.

The audit, sponsored by the Ohio Coalition for Open Government, a branch of the Ohio Newspaper Association, was conducted in late April by print and broadcast journalists from across Ohio. The Gazette performed the audit in Erie County.

The county commissioners weren’t alone in asking for the identity of the auditor.

A secretary at Brunswick Schools also asked for a name, but said it was only so she could let district Treasurer Patrick East know who he would be talking to. A form also was provided by the district that requested contact information, but the form noted that identifying information wasn’t necessary to obtain the public records.

Under Ohio law, public records requests don’t need to be made in writing.

East said even if the reporter hadn’t provided a name, he still would have made time to discuss the request and make the information available.

“It’s easier face-to-face, but if it’s anonymous, we give it to you,” he said this week.

The auditor requested Superintendent Michael Mayell’s salary and East’s expense report. East provided a copy of Mayell’s contract and his own expense report.

He said the district tries to make as much information as possible available online in the spirit of transparency. Among the documents posted online is a copy of the district’s public records policy.

“It comes from the top down,” East said this week. “The superintendent, the board believes in that philosophy and so do I.”

Medina Mayor Dennis Hanwell said he, too, is a believer in making public information accessible, something that was reflected in the auditor’s visit to Medina City Hall.

When Hanwell’s expense report and the salary of Medina Police Chief Patrick Berarducci were requested, an employee in the city’s Finance Department asked the reporter to have a seat and returned with the information being sought less than 10 minutes later. The employee took the time to explain the information being provided, but never asked why it was being requested.

Hanwell said he was pleased to learn that the city readily had complied with the audit, including emailed requests for the city’s public records policy and records retention policy. The city provided the records policy within an hour and the retention policy the next day.

“The whole premise is, and as I appreciate it, these are the public’s records,” Hanwell said.

Detailed information was a little harder to come by at the Medina Police Department, which makes basic information about most incidents available online through a searchable database. The website provides time, date, place and a basic description of the reason for a police call, but a detailed report isn’t available.

Chief Berarducci said most of what’s not available is withheld because prosecutors don’t want information getting out in cases that are ongoing.

“We try to make everything we can instantly available,” Berarducci said. “Those things that are not are done at the request of the Law Department and various prosecutors.”

Hanwell, who once served as the city’s police chief, said requests for additional information in police investigations will be released on a case-by-case basis once a more detailed report has been reviewed and information that shouldn’t be made public has been blacked out.

Although many public agencies in Medina County make information available in an electronic format, that’s not always the case.

The Medina County Health Department responded to an emailed request for restaurant inspection reports that those documents weren’t available electronically, but that they could be reviewed in person or mailed if an upfront fee was paid.

The Health Department did not respond to a second emailed request for recent birth records, which also are public records. After being contacted about the audit, Health Department employees said they tracked the lack of response to an error in the online contact form and corrected the problem.

“I’m looking at it as an opportunity to improve our communications,” said Lynee Bixler, a community relations specialist.

Contact reporter Brad Dicken at (440) 329-7147 or bdicken@chroniclet.com.