During a panel discussion at this year’s Ohio Newspaper Association convention, Mike DeWine provided some guidance on how public record requests should be handled: “Frankly, we find no way that it’s consistent with the spirit of the law of open records to make a distinction based on who is requesting, for whatever good or bad motives they might have . Everybody has to be treated the same.”
For once, Mr. DeWine is right: all requests for public records need to be handled the same whether they are coming from a political opponent, a reporter or some random guy on the street.
Sadly, some current statewide office holders are better than others at heeding this very good advice.
Last March we asked each officeholder for the log they use to track incoming record requests, along with the text of the original request and any responses. The results ranged from good to unbelievably bad.
In honor of Sunshine Week, we reviewed each Ohio’s statewide office holder’s response to our request. Combined with our personal experiences, we tried to provide some insight into how each office stacks up when it comes to handling requests for public records.
Today we’ll talk about the bottom two: The Governor’s Office and the Treasurer’s Office.
Ok… so let’s talk about Josh Mandel’s Treasurer’s Office.
I’ll give them credit for one thing: the information I eventually got was well formatted and in order, even if it was provided on paper and not electronically.
Unfortunately, in order to get the information, we had to hire a lawyer and sue the Treasurer’s Office in the Ohio Supreme Court.
After filing the initial record request on March 15, and following up by phone and email a total of 12 times, we received no response from Mandel’s office. They would not take our calls and they would not respond to our emails.
After 5 months of this we hired an attorney. And only after she threatened to sue did Mandel’s office finally respond by denying the entire request. We were finally forced to file a complaint with the Ohio Supreme Court and eventually settled in December. On the recommendation of the AG-assigned counsel, Mandel agreed to turn over all the records and to pay our attorney’s fees and damages.
Mandel ranks worst on our open government evaluation for ignoring our request. And after reviewing the documents we received from his office, many more reasons arise.
In March, we asked for “a copy of the original letter, email, phone message, etc. for each record request received by your office.” We noted that we did “not need a copy of all of the actual responsive records to the requests.” And we asked for records dating back to January 2011.
This is the request that they eventually denied and we sued over.
A few months after our request, on May 25, 2012, a reporter from The Columbus Dispatch emailed Mandel’s office asking for exactly the same information: “All of the public records requests submitted to The Treasurer’s office from April 1, 2012 to the present.” He even added “To be clear, I am seeking the requests themselves, and not the records that were produced as a result of the requests”
The reporter’s request was nearly the same as ours, except for the time frame, and his request was not denied. Instead, Seth Metcalf, Mandel’s General Counsel, returned the responsive records in just three business days, and he sent them in a pdf file.
This isn’t the only time a reporter received preferential treatment. A review of the logs received by Mandel’s office shows a total of 19 requests from reporters in 2011. Eight of those requests were handled in one business day or less. The average response time was less than five business days, with the longest being 15 business days.
Progressive groups and Democrats have to wait much longer.
Requests from the Ohio Democratic Party filed in June and July, 2011 weren’t completed until January of 2012 – that’s a seven month delay. Similar delays were seen for ODP requests from June and July 2012 for schedules, which weren’t answered until January 2013.
Requests from American Bridge, a progressive organization whose tracker captured Mandel’s camera-grabbing incident, have also faced delays ranging from four to seven months.
Metcalf and Mandel need a quick reminder from DeWine: there is “no way that it’s consistent with the spirit of the law of open records to make a distinction based on who is requesting.”
The request we sent to Kasich’s office was initially rejected. They denied our request for copies of record requests others had made saying it was “overly broad” and claimed they had no record request log that they could provide us. Instead of a log, I was told they use a lot of “folders”.
As is typical with the Governor’s Office, it took them over 5 weeks to get around to denying the original request.
After some follow up communication, the Governor’s office finally agreed to release the responses they provided for each request – these responses contain the original request as well as information on how and when it handled. It wasn’t exactly ideal, but it was sufficient for this analysis.
The responses were sent as scanned images, even though the originals had been sent out electronically. And the records were provided out of order. While the information was technically provided as requested, it was very difficult to use.
A review of the documents received by the Governor’s office indicate that we aren’t the only ones who have had to make multiple requests for the same information in order to finally receive the requested information. TV news outlets like WBNS-TV had documents redacted that the Governor’s office later released untouched. And even The Columbus Dispatch has battled with the Governor’s office over requests that were initially denied as “overly broad” but eventually fulfilled.
Generally speaking, Kasich’s office is slow to respond to requests, often waiting days or weeks to even acknowledge the request has been made. And they unnecessarily deny requests for being overly broad, especially when it comes to requests for email communication.
The Governor’s Office also has ongoing battles with reporters and Democrats over when the office will release copies of the governor’s schedule and what will be redacted.
Despite a few disagreements with reporters, they still appear to get preferential treatment from the Governor’s office, especially when compared to the turn around times experience by Plunderbund. Though given the overall slowness of the office, I’m sure most reporters aren’t feeling the love.
Kasich’s office has problems when it comes to public record requests, but they do communicate and work with us – albeit at a snail’s pace – and they did eventually turn over the requested information, though it took a total of three months for them to complete the request after initially denying it.
Compared to Mandel’s office, however, these guys are models of open government!
When it comes to public records, quality people, an efficient process and the technology to support that process make all the difference. Many of Ohio’s statewide officeholders are lacking in one or more of these areas.
Attorney Fritz Byers summed it up nicely when he told the same Ohio Newspaper Association panel: “Ohio public records law [is] predicated on the inarguable proposition that public records are the public’s records and that the incidental custodians of them at any particular time, whether it be a civil servant or an elected official … operate as trustees for all of us in the custody and handling of those records.”
In short: The records are ours. Elected officials are just watching over them for us.
In our opinion, they need to start doing a better job.