Picture still fuzzy for Marietta-Washington County Convention and Visitor's Bureau, public records

From The Marietta Times The local convention and visitors bureau is still trying to nail down its obligations, if any, under Ohio's public records law and hammer out a policy on the matter following records requests from both Marietta City Council and a private citizen in recent months. Private nonprofit organizations such as the Marietta-Washington County Convention and Visitor's Bureau (CVB) generally are not subject to public records requests, explained CVB executive director Jeri Knowlton.

"We're not a government entity and that's where it gets a little hard for people to understand. We don't perform anything that is exclusively reserved to the public sector," she said.

But factors such as amount of government funding-which went from around $450,000 in 2013 to around $575,000 in 2014 for the CVB-and amount of government oversight can affect even a private entities' requirements under Ohio public records law. That gray area came under scrutiny as city council discussed the tourism group's budget and eventually decided to cut the portion of funding the city allots the CVB from city bed tax revenues.

The city requested and was given thorough financial records during the process, but a private citizen who asked for similar records lamented being denied his request at a Marietta City Council meeting in December.

"It's listed as a public body, subject to state audit. But in a request made by a private citizen, I was to pick up these records, I was denied this opportunity," Marietta resident David Haney told council.

Knowlton said it is her understanding that the CVB is obligated to provide records only to the city.

"We are not obligated to have public meetings and we're not obligated to have public records. However we are obligated to give records to the city, and there has never been a single request by the city that we have not fulfilled," she said.

The city had never made a records request of the CVB until this fall when they began considering a funding cut for the organization. At that time council members requested and received detailed end of the year financial statements dating back to 2009, Knowlton added.

City Law Director Paul Bertram III said he believes the CVB could fall under general public records law under a court decision that set up a functional equivalency test. The test determines to what extent a given entity functions in a public office capacity. "I don't believe the (open meetings law) applies to the CVB. I believe open records law, they do apply to them under the functional equivalency test, which is a test espoused by the Ohio Supreme Court," said Bertram.

Bertram, acting through Washington County Prosecutor's Office, is deferring to the State Attorney General's office for an opinion on the matter.

But Dennis Hetzel, executive director of the Ohio Newspaper Association, said he doubts the CVB would meet all four points under the functional-equivalency test and is therefore not required to fulfill public records requests.

The four points which the Ohio Supreme Court put into place include analyzing whether the entity performs a government function, the level of government funding, the extent of government involvement and whether the entity was created by the government.

"The only point that clearly would apply is that a high percentage of their funding comes from local government," said Hetzel.

According to the CVB's tax filings, which are public record and can be found online at guidestar.org, the CVB reported $424,190 in total revenue in 2012. That same year, city records show the city alloted $393,076.70, or roughly 92 percent of the funding, to the CVB through bed tax revenues.

Even if the CVB is not subject to records requests from the general public, there are ways citizens can get some information on an agency, said Hetzel.

Tax filings are a start. In addition to the overall revenue and expenditure numbers, tax filings list a nonprofit's directors and board members and any compensation paid to them.

Additionally, any records the CVB shares with the city become public records, noted Hetzel. "My advice is go after the records the (city) is creating. Those are all public records. I would go to the (city) and ask for the bills, the emails, the communications," he said.