COLUMBUS (AP) — Public records-related citations across Ohio fell last year, but some officials still need to work harder to comply with the law, Republican State Auditor Dave Yost said in releasing new statistics Sunday.
“I can understand a bookkeeping error — mistakes happen — but there’s no justification for violating the clear law of public records,” Yost said in a statement.
Yost’s office issued 321 public records-related citations against 267 public entities in 2017, according to the report. That’s down 22 percent from the 414 citations issued in 2016 against 357 public entities.
Yost released his annual report to coincide with the kickoff of national Sunshine Week, a celebration of access to public information.
It showed that about 6 percent of 2017 audits included citations for noncompliance with Ohio’s public records law, compared to 8 percent the previous year.
Nearly six in 10 of the violations were against villages and townships, with villages accounting for 29 percent of citations and townships accounting for another 27 percent. Another 7 percent of citations were issued against police, fire, EMS and ambulance districts.
The remaining citations were issued against cities (6.5 percent), school districts (5 percent), counties (4.7 percent) and community schools (4 percent).
Yost said most violations involved failure to attend state-required public records training, lacking a public records policy or failing to make one available to the public.
“Message to public officials: These are not your records. These are public records, and it is the law,” he said. “You need to do whatever it takes to remind yourself to comply.”
Both the state auditor’s office and the state attorney general’s office offer public records trainings to public employees.
Dennis Hetzel, executive director of the Ohio News Media Association, said his group’s legal hotline gets regular calls from journalists wrongly denied access or records, despite the training that occurs. But he said a fast-tracked process through the Ohio Court of Claims has “leveled the playing field” between governments and individuals in public records disputes.
Hetzel cited the Cleveland city law director’s decision Friday to use a legal exemption to allow police body camera video to be obscured as the kind of case that raises concerns.
“This is the kind of thing we see where they want to release stuff when it’s convenient or it makes them look good, but they don’t want to do it when it might cause some discomfort,” he said.