Dozens of area public agencies cited for open records violations

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Dozens of area public agencies cited for open records violations

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Ohio Auditor of State Dave Yost speaks during the annual Butler County Republican Party Lincoln Day Dinner held at the Oscar Events Center, Friday, May 15, 2015. GREG LYNCH / STAFF

Thirty-two area public agencies were among 357 across the state issued citations last year for not fully complying with Ohio’s public records laws, according to the state auditor’s office.

Some had up to four citations, including the Springfield Academy of Excellence, which was shut down by the state in 2015 for other issues. Other entities with more than one citation include the Butler County Agricultural Society and village of Harveysburg.

Doug Turner, president of the Butler County Agricultural Society, and Harveysburg Mayor Richard Verga both said they were unaware of the citations and would look into it.

“We actually do have a public records policy,” Verga said. “We do all of that.”

The auditor’s office produced a May 2016 letter it sent to the agricultural board notifying them they lacked a required records policy, and a December 2016 letter to Harveysburg saying its policy was inadequate and its council members didn’t all receive required training.

Most of the issues statewide stem from officials not attending state-required public records training, lacking public records policies or failing to provide the policy on request, according to Ohio Auditor of State Dave Yost.

“Public records and transparency are not a matter of instinct. It requires training and that’s why it’s in the law,” Yost said in a statement. “When you take the public paycheck, you take the obligation to get trained. These documents belong to the people.”

At least once during each elected officials’ term, the official or a designee who handles agency records is required to get three hours of public records training from the state auditor or Ohio Attorney General’s office. The training is free and offered both in-person and online.

Auditor’s office spokeswoman Beth Gianforcaro said many of the citations were for not having documentation of this training, or for things such as not publicly posting records request policies, which is also required.

The violations were found in routine audits last year and released now to mark Sunshine Week starting March 12, when the government and transparency advocates highlight Ohio’s open records and meetings laws, commonly called “sunshine laws.”

Dennis Hetzel, executive director of the Ohio News Media Association, said these laws are as important as ever in the current political environment of skepticism of the media and government.

“When citizens lack confidence that their officials are being open and transparent about what they’re doing and why they’re doing it, whether it’s about meetings or records, that contributes to that cynicism and skepticism,” he said.

“Elected officials should take transparency every bit as seriously as they take the state budget, and if they don’t, they shoudn’t be in office,” he said.

Smaller governments were disproportionally likely to be cited, according to the auditor’s office. While fewer than 17 percent of the state’s audits last year were for townships, they accounted for more than 30 percent of the violations. Villages represented less than 9 percent of all audits, but more than 23 percent of violations.

Locally, eight of the cited entities were villages, six were charter schools, four each were townships and traditional school districts, and two were cities.

The cities, Centerville and Germantown, were notified in management letters last year that they didn’t meet the training requirement, according to the auditor’s office.

Gianforcaro said the citations carry no civil or criminal penalty. She said the auditor’s office will follow up with all cited agencies during their next routine audit.

“When we come back to do the audit again, we look to see whether it was addressed,” she said.

Other recent I-Team stories:

By the numbers

414: Public records related citations issued to Ohio governments

32: Number of local agencies cited

8: Local villages cited

6: Local charter schools cited

4: Local public schools cited

4: Local townships cited

2: Local cities cited

Source: Ohio Auditor of State

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