Contacts: Jerry Masek, Cleveland SPJ, 216/267-4413; Diane Roman Fusco, president, Citizens League, 216/687-1480
CLEVELAND — A citizen who requests an auto accident report or a financial statement from a government office will likely return home frustrated and disappointed, according to a new study by the Citizens League Research Institute (CLRI).
Testers found that even if the agency complies, citizens oftentimes are overcharged for photocopies they request.
The study was created and executed in collaboration with the Cleveland Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. It was funded by the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation, the George Gund Foundation and the Scripps-Howard Foundation. The study received a $20,000 grant from the SDX Foundation, the educational arm of SPJ.
"City halls did best among the 128 offices surveyed," said CLRI research director Richard Marountas. "Police departments, on the other hand, had the hardest time meeting the requirements of Ohio’s Sunshine Laws."
Under Ohio law, almost all records created by state and local agencies are public and should be available for inspection by citizens, not just reporters, to help voters monitor the activities of government and its officials. CLRI and its sister organization, the Citizens League, have sought to participate in this oversight role for 105 years.
"The very term ‘Sunshine Laws’ is based on the metaphor that the light of information will have a positive effect on the relationship between citizen and government," the report states.
The current study was undertaken to determine how well local governments in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, provide the access to records that citizens need to examine their activities.
Based on the results of this study, the organizations intend to assist government agencies in fulfilling their public obligations.
Locally, the Cleveland Chapter of SPJ helped initiate and launch the study with the Citizens League Research Institute.
"This report underscores the fact that all citizens — and not just the news media — need to receive more cooperation obtaining public records from city officials," said Jim Szatkowski, president of the Cleveland Chapter of SPJ. "While not all public bodies cooperate easily in requests for public records, all are supported by public funds."
The research organization sent volunteers to city halls, school district offices and police departments. At each office, the volunteer requested a variety of documents, such as a copy of the agency’s audited financial statement or a police incident report. Each volunteer then filled out an evaluation form quantifying his or her experiences. The Citizens League Research Institute also solicited the views of public officials on their open records experiences.
Part of the access problem appears to be lack of knowledge of Sunshine Laws on the part of public employees who provide initial contact for citizens. Government offices that field the most requests appeared to comply more fully than offices that have little experience with public records requests from citizens. Specific information from the study can be found at www.citizensleague.org on the "Civic Information Database" link.
The report notes that police departments, which have more information that is exempt from release, are more likely to "choose to err on the side of caution when in doubt."
Volunteers many times also were asked, in violation of Sunshine Laws, to provide their name, who they worked for or why the information was sought before the request would be filled.
When requests were filled, the offices charged considerably more than the 5-cents-per-page limit set by open records laws. Some charged as much as 25 cents per page.
To follow up the study, SPJ’s Cleveland Pro Chapter and the Citizens League will conduct a program at noon April 18 for journalists and public officials. Keynote speaker will be Paul McMasters, a nationally known expert on public records, an ombudsman of the Freedom Forum, which is devoted to promoting public discussion and airing news media issues, and the president of the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation Board of Directors. His speech, detailing how public record audits have aided communities across the nation, will be followed by a panel discussion to offer public officials help in complying with the law. For information on this program, contact the Cleveland SPJ chapter at 440/333-7382.
The CLRI also will take the results of this survey to local officials to encourage them to make sure workers and officials know their responsibilities under the Sunshine Laws and to ensure that government will be more responsive to its employers, the citizens.
Specifically, it will recommend improved training of government employees in public records laws; urge public officials to foster the idea of the citizen as customer; clarify lines of authority so employees know what information can always be released to citizens, which records can never be released and which can be released under special circumstances; and plan ahead by having copies of frequently requested information always available.
The Citizens League is making the entire report available for $15. To obtain a copy, call 216/241-5340.