Sunshine Week: Bringing Awareness to Public Records

The Dayton Daily News has an article highlighting Sunshine Week, a week to bring awareness to public records laws and open government, and we thought it was important to comment on this issue. Much of what we do would not be possible without Ohio’s public records laws, but at the same time it’s important to acknowledge that we invest a lot of unnecessary time forcing public officials to comply with those laws. Ohio’s sunshine laws are designed to give journalists just enough access to avoid making a stink about it while keeping the public at large in the dark. Ohio––both at the state and local levels—intentionally avoids fulfilling the promise of an open government.

Open Government

Open government just means that the government may only keep secrets in very limited cases, such as for national security or to maintain the privacy of individuals who interact with the government. The idea is simple: Democracy can only function if voters know what the government does. At the national level, the conflict between national security and openness has created a horrible mess, but this does not exist at the state or local level. In theory, state and local governments should be, except in very limited cases, completely open.

This does not happen. As the Dayton Daily article points out, even when the state laws require openness, governments often just refuse to comply or they drag their feet. If you take the Ohio Sunshine Law training provided by the state, you will quickly realize why: the training is specifically designed to teach government employees how to avoid compliance and to make things difficult for the requestor. There are also very few penalties for noncompliance. If a government official refuses to comply with a public record request, their office can be charged $100 per day they refuse to comply. That penalty might work if it were not capped at ten days, meaning the most they can be fined is $1,000. In order to get that fine levied, you’ll have to hire a lawyer, take the government office to court, and win. The process will cost you more than it costs the government.

Even when governments are fully compliant with public records requests, it does not mean that they are open. Ohio’s public records laws require you to ask for specific records. If you do not know what records to ask for, you’re probably out of luck. Officials are recommended to work with requestors to help them ask for the specific records they require, but they are not bound by any law or disciplinary process to actually do this. The biggest impediment to an open government is the necessity of going through a government official in the first place.

In a world with the internet and the ability to digitally store records, it would make sense for government records to all be available to the public through well-organized, searchable websites. Instead, government websites often just provide the information the government wants us to have. When to pay taxes. Where to appear in court. How to comply with a certain ordinance. Modern computing and networking provides the necessary tools to realize the dream of an open government but it must become an important issue for constituents before governments will make the necessary investments.

Local Snapshots

The Montgomery County website provides a lot of information but it’s not particularly well organized. Because our county is structured like it’s still the Gilded Age and our local offices are split up in silly ways, the amount of information on the county’s website varies from office to office and there is no standard for organization. The Auditor’s page is loaded with information. Sadly and ironically, the Recorder’s page contains few records. The Commission does provide all agendas, minutes, and resolutions online but uses a third-party software service that can make this process more difficult than it needs to be. Obtaining public records from some county offices can be challenging. Their way of streamlining this process is to direct you to a lawyer who works for the prosecutor’s office and he’ll redirect your request. The best way is to track down an official in the office you need information from.

Huber Heights and the City of Dayton both have forms to request public records on their websites. Huber has pretty nifty document page which makes finding information pretty easy. Dayton spends money on a service called “opengov.com,” which appears to just create an interactive version of the city’s financial reports.

Jefferson Township doesn’t have the worst website, but the township officials do not understand the Ohio Sunshine laws. They tell citizens not to contact officials other than the fiscal officer to fulfill public records requests despite the fact that Ohio law clearly states that all government employees must comply with public records requests. They also insist that requestors fill out a form to receive public records, which is also in violation of Ohio public records laws.

The common trend is that localities with more money tend to do a better job of providing information and making public records requests easy, but there is no standard for openness.

Standardization

Perhaps the greatest barrier to open local government is a lack of standardization. If a proprietary service, such as opengov.com or OnBase were to go under, what would happen to the records they keep? We encountered a similar problem when requesting tax information from a local village. All of their tax records for particular years were held by a now-defunct company and they had no way of obtaining them. We need standard open-source solutions to ensure public records are maintained by government entities and that each locality does not need to reinvent the wheel to provide these records to the public.

We also need standard layouts to make navigating a government website easy. Furthermore, it should become standard for all public records to be available to the public without filing a request. Yes, that means we should be able to sift through the e-mails of public employees.

Solutions

Ohio will not become a truly open government until the Sunshine laws are reformed to account for the 21st century. For this to happen at the state level, it would help for local governments to function as a model for openness. This would demonstrate the benefits and effectiveness of open government. Here are some specific steps we can take:

  1. Ensure the government owns all records. If a third-party cloud service is utilized, only do so if the records can be easily migrated to a different service. This means using open standards so the government does not become locked-in to a proprietary technology.
  2. Dayton should work with other municipalities—both in the county and elsewhere in Ohio—to develop a standard website template that relies on open technologies. Montgomery County should do the same thing with other Ohio counties.
  3. Ensure that not only are all records made public, but that they are easily navigated and searchable. This would include e-mails, contracts, meetings, and any other form of government correspondence.
  4. Ensure that not only do all localities have a form to make public records requests similar to Dayton and Huber Heights, but that this form can be easily found and requests are complied with promptly.
  5. Hold officials accountable for violating the sunshine laws. This means that stonewalling a public records request should be a fireable offense and there should be no 10 day limit on the fine for noncompliance.

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