Public records requests get easier with exercise

Anonymous
Nov 27, 2012

 

My topic this week is a citizen winning a public record court case.

Congratulations to the former Mayor of Vermilion, Jean Anderson, for winning her public records lawsuit by being persistent enough in taking her case all the way up to the Ohio Supreme Court. The case was about requesting itemized billing statements for city work that was performed by two private law firms.

I don’t think anyone would want to breach attorney-client privilege, but a citizen does have the right to know how much the city paid out in the way of billed attorney hours and the expense involved. The confidential attorney-client information could have been redacted; but instead, the requested information was totally denied provoking a lawsuit for the information.

It is the law to accommodate a public request for information unless it falls into a certain category. Most of the time when I request public documents, I usually receive them in a prompt manner. The more people who are trained, the easier it becomes to obtain the requested record. It becomes a difficult situation when employees are not trained properly. Training staff keeps the entity out of court, so I would think that the entities would become proactive in training staff before a problem presents itself. If an employee is in doubt whether or not to hand over a document, there is always the Law Director to assist the employee.

The State Auditor teaches free classes on public records. I have always been interested in public records and what you can and cannot request, so I decided to take the four-hour class and I became certified in public records. I highly recommend the class to anyone if they ever get chance to attend. Anyone interested in attending one of the classes can check on the State Auditor’s website for a class near your location. You can also download the Sunshine Law Manual from the State Auditor’s site and educate yourself.

I was fortunate to attend a public records class sponsored by Perkins Township. I hope Perkins will continue to sponsor the classes so they can be conducted closer to home in order to save on commute time and gasoline. The class was packed full and I noticed that Sandusky City Manager, Ms. Ard, had sent some of her staff to the class. I think everyone who handles public record requests should definitely take the training. Anyone can sponsor a class as long as there are thirty people in attendance to make it worth while for the auditor to come from Columbus to instruct the class. Maybe, the City of Sandusky will sponsor a class as well.

Until next time, taking an entity to court should be your last resort but sometimes an example must be made in order to remind the entities that they need to comply with the law even if it means redacting parts of the document instead of disallowing the request completely.

Comments

Diane Schaefer

Too bad that the Fiscal Officer for Perkins did not benefit from this class. I am still waiting for her to completely fulfill my public records request for monthly financial records.

wiredmama222

Too bad lawyers don't always understand that attorney client privildege, just because you state it, doesn't mean it is so.

I believe they found that out. Now that the Erie County Court knows it, perhaps they should be more aware of it before standing behind something THEY should have known so this didn't need to be brought to their attention by the Supreme Court. What a shame that higher ups needed to point that out.

Licorice Schtick

So.....now that the Supreme Court has ruled that the law was violated, what is the penalty?

wiredmama222

No, no, the Supreme Court of Ohio overturned a RULING. There is no fine of which I am aware. That is what the Supreme Court if for. The lower court...Erie County...stated that the Vermilion Mayor could not get a copy of the billing from a law firm of the breakdown on some billing to the new mayor on work done because it was listed as attorney client priviledge. But the supreme court says that isn't so just because it was listed as such does not make it so. Attorney client privilege does not apply to billing between attorney and client and they must provide an entire list of breakdown of their billing as public record to anyone who wishes to see it including the past mayor so they have to do so. Which won't please the new mayor or the attorneys nor Erie County courts. No lower court likes having their opinions overturned by the higher courts...especially on points of law such as this.

Centauri

"The State Auditor teaches free classes on public records." Why don't the powers that be in Ohio take advantage of these classes? Answer. Because the powers that be want to keep everything under wraps.

Erie County is following the practices of Chicago and Cuyahoga County (in Ohio) politics. Keep everything under the rug seems to be the rule.

@ Diane Schaefer, How long have you been waiting for your public records request? If these are financial records, they should be produced as soon as possible.

Diane Schaefer

I agree that they should be produced ASAP. But it is not happening.

I think I put in my original request in April. It took until June to get any of them with the exception of the agenda. Ms. Niehm is very prompt. I requested 13 different financial records, all on UAN and without SSNs, for each month, starting with March. The only one that I have gotten for each month is the Payroll Register.

On Nov 14th I set a recap of what was missing. To date out of the 39 various monthly reports I have only gotten 4.

Of the total 104 reports requested I have received 69,or 66%. Is that the new passing grade for Perkins?

Centauri

@ Diane Schaefer, What was reason for the delay in your records request? Were you given a reason in writing? Here is a section from the Ohio Revised Code 149.43. It sounds to me like you are being denied "in part" of your records request.

(3) If a request is ultimately denied, in part or in whole, the public office or the person responsible for the requested public record shall provide the requester with an explanation, including legal authority, setting forth why the request was denied. If the initial request was provided in writing, the explanation also shall be provided to the requester in writing. The explanation shall not preclude the public office or the person responsible for the requested public record from relying upon additional reasons or legal authority in defending an action commenced under division (C) of this section.

Centauri

"On Nov 14th I set a recap of what was missing. To date out of the 39 various monthly reports I have only gotten 4.

Of the total 104 reports requested I have received 69,or 66%. Is that the new passing grade for Perkins?"

Sounds just like Chicago-Illinois when it comes to public records requests.

http://media.apps.chicagotribune...

Diane Schaefer

I agree that they should be produced ASAP. But it is not happening.

I think I put in my original request in April. It took until June to get any of them with the exception of the agenda. Ms. Niehm is very prompt. I requested 13 different financial records, all on UAN and without SSNs, for each month, starting with March. The only one that I have gotten for each month is the Payroll Register.

On Nov 14th I sent a recap of what was missing. To date out of the 39 various monthly reports I have only gotten 4.

Of the total 104 reports requested I have received 69,or 66%. Is that the new passing grade for Perkins?

wiredmama222

If you have not received what you are asking for, why not take your appeal to the Perkins Board. I would think they would want to know that your request are meeting with resistance. After all, public records should be given out as requested without this kind of trouble.

Go to a meeting and tell them what is going on and see if they can't straighten this out for you or exert some pressure. That should take care of it.

Were you not the treasurer or something of Perkins at one time? I would think that would help you in some way.

Diane Schaefer

I have taken it to one of the Trustees,but he feels that this is 'putting him in the middle". I believe they do know. I have been to a meeting, but it hasn't helped.

And yes I was the previous fiscal officer for the township. But the voters chose to elect the current FO/Public Records person. One of her champaign promises was that she could work with anyone and would do what it takes to serve her community. Am I not part of that community?!?

Diane Schaefer

And while talking about Public Records, one that I have requested is the FUND LEDGER for fund 4903. This is the fund for the development of the new Township Complex (or Hall as Andy Ouriel insists on calling it).

There has been a report that recaps the revenue for the funding of the township hall that has appeared in the SR on at least two occasions, most recently on Nov. 18th.

Unfortunately it is not accurate. In 2010 the Township only received $1.5 million in cash from Firelands, not $1.65 million. The difference, $150,000 is to be paid at a rate of $30,000 per year for the next 5 years 2011-2015 through in-kind services. No rollover; use it or lose it.

You see the 2011 amount reflected in the report as $17,000. So of the $30,000, $13,000 was never realized. No big deal you say. I don't agree. You cannot count money that you may not receive, let alone count it twice. And if not still following a charge back procedure to the departments that I put in place, there is no further benefit to the building fund at all.

The second thing I question is the OTHER ONE-TIME SOURCES of $240,000. What sources? What year? $240,000 is a significant amount and should be identified.

Also missing for the article is the fact that the total of $3.4 is not just for the new building. The related expenses include the purchase of the property at 2610 Columbus Avenue and the remodeling of the Hwy Dept building.

Interesting enough, the Township was under no obligation to produce this report (Source: Perkins Township fiscal office). So if the report was actually compiled by the reporter, then I apologize to the Township. But you should have corrected the questionable amounts immediately.

pavedparadise

Ms. Johnson--- If you take requests, can you supply readers information on how many foreclosed properties are in the City of Sandusky and how many have been torn down vs rehabed? Thank you.

Darkhorse

Diane, Either the treasurer is not fully trained in public records or she feels that she can pick and choose what she wants to give out. I would certainly go up higher to the Trustees to see why she is not complying or possibly talk to the Perkins attorney and alert him that you are having trouble getting public records. I believe the State has a hotline to report stubborn cases such as yours. There are several avenues you can take to get the treasurer to comply with your request. Keep working your way up the chain of command because if someone doesn't start listening, it will cost the Township money to defend themselves.

Diane Schaefer

I believe that she attended the training at Perkins Schools in June because she was put in charge of Purlic Records requests soon after. I have tried the steps you have suggested, except for talking to their legal counsel.

The only way I was able to get any response was after I gave them a letter with a copy going to my attorney. I know I could take this further, but I don't want to cost the citizens of Perkins any more money (even after they failed to vote for me).

wiredmama222

Ms Johnson, does the auditors office not have the quarter they are in plus thirty days in which to turn over requested items from the auditors office? I thought they went by fiscal quarter in the townships? Or am I wrong about that?

Also, do that not have the right to reject certain requests if they receive too many from the same person continually? I remember reading somewhere that excessive requests of continuous documentation from the same source on continuous documentation can be rejected if ok's by the trustees of the township or municipality if ok's by majority of vote? It seems to me I remember reading that in one of the document manuals somewhere.

Diane Schaefer

The Ohio Public Records act does not set a timeline, only reasonable, depending on how & where it is stored and whether some information needs to be redacted. In my case all the information is available on the UAN accounting computer and can be sent via e-mail as a pdf document.

There is nothing about excessive requests relating to the number of requests. There is something however, about unclear or overly broad requests. This is why many public entities request that you put your request in writing, something that only reporters are required to do. It helps make certain that everyone knows what is being requested and prevents 'fishing'. Example: asking for all documentation is overly broad.

Centauri

A brief explanation of public records requests by the ACLU (Fall 2009).

http://www.acluohio.org/issues/o...

Centauri

Ohio is one of the most corrupt states. I feel that the laws of Ohio promote corruption. The Ohio Attorney General will not accept a request from a citizen to investigate public corruption. The citizen must either hire an attorney and file a lawsuit or ask the county prosecutor to call in the OAG to investigate the alleged corruption. Former OAG Cordray was supposed to investigate the corruption in Cuyahoga County. What is DeWine going to do about it? There were and are many state laws being broken in Cuyahoga County.

If a citizen does use the courts and files lawsuits to weed out corruption, the powers that be use and twist the laws of Ohio to fit their agendas. Ohio has some very crooked judges who need to go to prison. Look what happened to that attorney who got 8 years in prison for trying to weed out corruption. Where were the investigations into her allegations? There were none. Where was the OAG to investigate her allegations? There were none.

The attorneys and judges in Ohio like to twist the laws around to suit their agenda. An example is the excuse of "confidential attorney-client information" in the case of former Mayor of Vermilion, Jean Anderson. That excuse given is laughable. Taxpayers need to know how their money is spent and where it is spent. An itemized list would show how and where the money was spent. Ohio has some really stupid or corrupt judges to have the case go all of the way to the OSC.

http://codes.ohio.gov/orc/149.43

149.43 [Effective Until 9/28/2012] Availability of public records for inspection and copying.

149.43 [Effective 9/28/2012] Availability of public records for inspection and copying

Public records that are kept under wraps promote corruption. I am not aware of any criminal charges against anyone knowingly withholding the public records for the purpose to hide unethical or illegal acts. If public officials faced criminal charges, there would be a lot less public corruption in Ohio.

Julie R.

@ Centauri: Everything you said is right on target. Somebody on cleveland.com summed it up real good, too. He said this state and all it stands for is a cesspool of incompetent and corrupt idiots.

Julie R.

People should take notice of what went on in Cuyahoga County and learn from it. Didn't Frank Russo testify that the only time they ever worried about getting caught was when the reporters from the Plain Dealer and others came snooping around asking too many questions and requesting public records?

Centauri

Here are a couple of examples of how the powers that be protect the corruption in Ohio.

http://www.cleveland.com/morris/...
"I ran Stephanie's race for prosecutor out of my office. We had precinct maps up on the walls showing exactly where she would win and where she would lose."

"Stephanie is the late Congresswoman Stephanie Tubbs Jones, who was then a Cuyahoga County Common Pleas judge and was locked in a tight raced for the prosecutor's office with her bench colleague, Michael J. Corrigan."

"Bonanno was sentenced to a year at the Lorain Correctional Institution and ordered to pay $35,000 in restitution. He was released on probation after 56 days"

http://www.cleveland.com/cuyahog...

Cuyahoga County Auditor Frank Russo fails to comply with records request

http://www.cleveland.com/countyi...

1998 state audit foreshadows allegations of Frank Russo taking kickbacks

"But then-Prosecutor Stephanie Tubbs Jones cut short an investigation by her office without taking the case to a grand jury and opted to charge Russo with dereliction of duty, a misdemeanor. That allowed him to stay in office and ultimately to turn the auditor's office into a graft machine that funneled more than a million dollars into his pockets."

Julie R.

@Centauri, did you see where the former OAG Marc Dann had his law license suspended for six months because he engaged in conduct that adversely reflects on his fitness to practice law?

http://www.courtnewsohio.gov/cas...

So what makes the Grievance Committee think he'll be any different after 6 months? That Ohio Grievance Committee is a joke, too.