State’s narrow view of time shields public records

From The Columbus Dispatch

Journalists usually get results when they respond quickly to a major story.

But not always — especially when state government is involved.

When state Sen. Cliff Hite resigned last month after admitting sexual harassment of a female legislative aide, Dispatch legislative reporter Jim Siegel and a handful of others who cover the Statehouse immediately asked for public records on the case.

But the key memo detailing the aide’s account of repeated unwanted encounters with the Findlay Republican went not to those who asked first, but to news organizations that filed requests the following day or later.

How did that happen?

The first requests from The Dispatch and others came on Oct. 18. It was acknowledged on Oct. 19 by Mark Flanders, head of the Ohio Legislative Service Commission: “We have begun examining our records for those responsive to the request.”

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Turns out that the detailed memo also was dated Oct. 19. However, The Dispatch didn’t get it because Flanders limited his search to records on hand as of the date of the request — despite not beginning that search until the day the memo was prepared.

But because other requests were dated Oct. 19 or later, they got the memo because Flanders’ search period started on the day those requests were received — which was the day the memo was prepared or afterward.

Media organizations have had similar upside-down experiences with other state offices, as state lawyers say that a request for public records cannot be ongoing. We journalists almost might concede that such a practice might meet legal technicalities, but the spirit of transparency built into Ohio’s open-government laws is being violated. So is the long-forgotten concept of government workers being “public servants.”

Would you be satisfied if, on Thursday, you sent someone who worked for you to get an important document you had paid for, and the employee obtained the document on Friday — but said, sorry boss, you aren’t getting it because it wasn’t available when you asked on Thursday?

The practice is causing some journalists to make daily public records requests to make sure that public officials aren’t using this dodge to deny public records to the public.