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They're Your Documents

By Gregory Flannery · January 4th, 2006 · All The News That Fits
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Reporters have no special right to public records. It's just that we're in the business of asking for them.

Arrest reports, the mayor's e-mail to the city manager, a school principal's personnel file and the county administrator's travel-expense sheet are just a few of the public records that are available on demand to any member of the public.

That's the theory anyway. In practice, the Cincinnati Police Department is sometimes less than forthcoming with documents requested by some reporters, and more than a few public employees don't even know they have to keep certain records -- let alone share them with any citizen who asks.

The Internal Audit Division of the Finance Department recently completed a study of how well Cincinnati city employees comply with the Ohio Public Records Act. The audit report starts with a statement of the law that is elementary but worth re-telling.

"Records produced by public offices in the course of business are property of the public," the report says. "Laws require that public offices are able to provide citizens with 'prompt inspection' of public records."

Myths about that essentially simple principle abound. Citizens don't have to put records requests in writing, nor do they have to give a reason for seeing a document.

"Institutional knowledge has suffered as new employees take over responsibility for record management without training," the report says.

"Some departments incorrectly require public record requests to be made in writing. Very few employees were aware of the City's e-mail retention policy, including members at the Regional Computer Center."

Public agencies can't very well keep every single piece of paper used in the conduct of their business. State law allows some records to be destroyed after a certain time, and in a certain manner. Auditors didn't find any examples of premature destruction of records, but some city employees were unfamiliar with proper procedure.

"The audit found significant weaknesses in departments' record retention efforts," the report says. "Some departments lacked retention schedules or were not aware of retention schedules for some of their divisions. Some departments appointed a records custodian only after the audit was initiated. Few departments were filing the appropriate forms when disposing of records."

The audit makes 10 recommendations, including training for employees in public records law and how to handle requests for records.

"Each department should have a record custodian and assistant record custodian who receive more comprehensive training in records management," the study says.

The last six recommendations are ways the administration can improve record retention practices, most notably giving the chair of the City Records Commission authority to enforce departments' compliance.

The audit's final recommendation is that the city consider creating a common record center.

"This idea was first proposed by a records consultant in 1981, and the city continues to struggle with the challenges it faced then," the report says. "The audit advocates a study that would weigh the cost as well as the value that would be created by such a center."

Under existing state law, the only meaningful way to force a government agency to release public records is to file suit. But state law might soon strengthen the existing Public Records Act. The Ohio General Assembly is considering legislation that would expand the definition of "public record," require training for all public officials and employees and establish progressive fines, including legal fees for non-compliance.

But tedious though it might be for public employees to keep -- and copy on request -- large numbers of documents, the issue goes right to the heart of democracy.

"Good record retention and management are essential requirements of an open government, allowing the public to understand the workings of government," the audit report says.



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