Editorial: Blacked out, or the eroding commitment to open records across the state

Editorial by the Akron Beacon Journal

Kent State University finds itself in a familiar place, and that is not a reference to the strong performance of its men’s basketball team this season. The university has embarked on a major project, in this instance, developing a strategic vision, and it has proved less than forthcoming about the public expense involved.

Or to put it another way, a publicly supported institution is leaving the public in the dark about costs related to its strategic planning.

The university hired 160over90, a well regarded consulting firm from Philadelphia, to assist in the project. The firm won the job through a competitive bidding process. It will receive a “total project fee” of $101,750. As the services agreement with the university states, that sum does not include “incidentals” or “production media and travel costs.” Nothing wrong there; such detail turns on how the project plays out.

What is noteworthy about the copy of the agreement released this week at the request of Rick Armon, a Beacon Journal staff writer, are the items that have been redacted. Start with the “cost per unit” of the “incidentals rate card,” covering such things as copies, mileage, art supplies and “meals for working late.” In a section regarding “project slippage,” there is a reference to the “discounted blended rate” of the client, the detail of the rate redacted. The same goes for the “held capacity” fee, the amount equating to a redacted portion of the “aggregate project fee.”

The agreement states that in the wake of a public records request, 160over90 will have time to “review and redact any propriety information.” The precise time it will have? Blacked out.

This provision carries a troubling echo, the university by agreement leaving the private company to make key decisions about what will be revealed about the spending of public money. Such was the problem when this newspaper requested documents last year involving the search at Kent State for a new university president.

No company should be required to give up proprietary information. In this case, the process leaves the public without knowledge of the payment schedule, rates it is being charged or the time permitted each party to terminate the agreement, in the event of a breach.

Take one contract or project, and rationales easily surface about why information should be withheld. Then, consider the range of agreements across public institutions, and the cumulative impact of many betrayals, smaller and larger, of the spirit or letter of the state open records law. That is what has happened in Ohio in recent decades, a steady erosion of the commitment to openness in public institutions, one seemingly small concession following another.

Thus, Kent State isn’t alone, but it again has left the public without a complete accounting of how public money will be spent. That isn’t good for the concept of trust in government.