This story is part of the package “Ohio: Open for Inspection?” on a statewide public records audit conducted by the Ohio Coalition for Open Government and Ohio media organizations.
Toledo — Electronic requests for public records held by local governments are sometimes much farther than a few clicks away.
A public records audit conducted by journalists in each county of the state found local governments have a scattershot approach to electronic requests. Some auditors found websites to school districts, cities and counties with email addresses or online contact forms. Others had difficulty sussing out officials’ email addresses or sent multiple emails requesting information but received no response.
This year’s audit by the Ohio Coalition for Open Government, a followup to a 2004 statewide audit, included electronic records requests in addition to in-person requests.
The results exposed digital holes.
The website for the Harrison County village of Cadiz listed email addresses, though some were rejected when an auditor tried to use them. The auditor called the office asking for an email address, but the person on the phone refused to provide one.
A Paulding County clerk apologetically fulfilled a records request after checking her junk email folder and finding a series of week-old email requests along with “hundreds of other junk mail.”
Others responded to emails with lightning-quick efficiency. In Cincinnati, a city official wrote back in just over an hour with links to a website where the documents were posted.
About a year ago, Washington County implemented an online record request service. Many requests are fulfilled electronically the same or next day, said Rick Peoples, clerk for the county commissioners.
“We think it’s very critical that we serve the public, and it was important to us to make it as easy as possible for people to request those documents,” he said.
Local governments have the same responsibility to respond to an electronic request as they do to those made by another method, said David Marburger, a Cleveland-based media attorney.
Damian Sikora, Constitutional Offices Section chief at the Ohio Attorney General’s office, said he’s not aware of an effort to require agencies to accept record requests electronically, but added “it’s getting more and more likely that governmental entities are moving to some sort of digital mechanism.”
Even if the agency has working email, a citizen may encounter problems when using it to obtain a record. The request could end up in the spam folder, or it could be sent to the wrong person — delaying the response.
Sikora recommends citizens reach out by phone to make sure they send an email to the right person. He suggests government officials instruct all employees to forward requests to the appropriate person.
Overall results of this year’s audit showed improvement in government responsiveness, but Dennis Hetzel, executive director of the Ohio Newspaper Association, said government units should improve their online presence.
At a minimum, even the smallest government units should have a general email account and check it a couple of times a day.
“I hope that the governmental bodies that are not making it easy for people to contact them via the Internet will take a look at that and learn something from what happened in the audit,” he said.