Local officials get lesson in public records, open meetings

From The Bellefontaine Examiner Being reasonable and erring on the side of transparency are the key elements when handling public records requests, a state official told a group of about 150 people, most of whom were local public employees.

“If both sides are reasonable — and 99 percent of the time they are — it is possible to work out any issues regarding (public records) requests without any issues,” Max Gerwin of State Auditor Dave Yost’s Open Government Unit said during the Wednesday afternoon training session.

“Most of the time people are looking for something specific and any tension that exists is just because they aren’t exactly sure what to ask.”

Mr. Gerwin came to Bellefontaine at the request of City Auditor Jack Reser and Logan County Auditor Michael E. Yoder to present the three-hour session on Ohio’s public records and open meeting laws, which all elected officials are either required to attend or send a delegate to attend in their stead.

His presentation covered a wide range of topics in public records and retention, but he was only able to briefly touch on open meetings because of time constraints.

“It’s always good to keep up on the legal aspects and laws,” Bellefontaine City Councilman Jerry Pitzer said after the meeting. “As a city, I think we’re in compliance with what we are doing as far as public records go. It also reaffirmed some things about open meetings and executive sessions that are good to know.”

Having an event in Bellefontaine was also a convenience to many small town officials like West Mansfield Administrator and Fiscal Officer David Evans.

“When I first started, I didn’t know anything about public records, but this is the third time I’ve done this, so I have pretty much heard most of it now,” the six-year public servant said. “There’s certainly a good reason to have them, and I was glad this one was so close.”

Mr. Gerwin began by explaining what a public entity was and used examples to show that many private enterprises — including contractors paid to build a building for the government — are subject to public record disclosure.

Essentially anyone keeping records for the government or a government-funded project are most likely required to produce records when asked to do so.

And records in the electronic age are not just limited to papers on file in cabinets, he said. Electronic records, including information from public databases and emails — sometimes even those from a public employee’s personal email account or cellular telephone — can be considered public records.

He stressed that it doesn’t take a journalist to ask, either. In fact, anyone can make a public records request and the agency receiving the request cannot ask the person’s name, intentions or require that they submit the request in writing.

But usually an open line of communication with the person making the request is the best way to facilitate the request, Mr. Gerwin said.

Having a solid base of information available on the Internet, which is not a requirement of the law, can meet a person’s needs without ever visiting the office.

“You are not obliged to provide Internet access, but when your records are available online it is invaluable,” Mr. Gerwin said. “It not only provides more transparency, but better customer service for the requester and less work for the public office dealing with the requests.”

He noted that all offices must either have a record retention schedule in place regarding the destruction of records, which must be approved by the Ohio Historical Society, or else keep the records forever.

Mr. Gerwin closed the meeting by touching on open meeting laws.

He said meetings must be prearranged, consist of a majority of a body’s members and be for the purpose of deliberating or discussing public business. He then addressed the limited reasons why public bodies can enter into executive, or closed door, sessions and noted that no decision making or straw polls can be conducted in those sessions.

All participants in the event were given copies of the most recent edition of the Ohio Sunshine Laws manual and were encouraged to take additional copies to fellow office members. An online copy of the manual is available at: www.ohioattorneygeneral.gov/yellowbook.

Additional information is available on the Ohio Auditor’s Open Government Unit Web site at ohioauditor.gov/open.html.