Report: Butler County is open with its public records

The ability to get most public records in Butler County on a timely basis appears to be better than in some corners of the state, according to a statewide test of Ohio’s open records laws performed in April.

And it seems that the city of Hamilton, the Hamilton City School District and Butler County government are on the same page in giving the public the information it requests without asking, “Why do you want it?”

The audit was performed by newspaper, television and radio reporters in all 88 Ohio counties on behalf of the Ohio Newspaper Association’s Coalition for Open Government. Auditors didn’t identify themselves as reporters to test how local officials would respond to a typical resident seeking public records.

Butler County was one of 64 counties in Ohio that did not deny a public records request during the audit. Records were requested by an area news agency from Butler County, the city of Hamilton administration and the police department, and the Hamilton City School District.

Of the six public records that were requested in this audit, the requests were fulfilled within a day or two.

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“We’re trained to drop everything and address those (public records requests) quickly,” said Colleen Taylor, city of Hamilton law director. “I agree the public needs to see the records.”

A public record is any type of record — whether it’s meeting minutes, job resumes, a police report, a 911 call or personnel file — that is maintained by a public entity. While there is no set or predetermined time period to respond to a public records request, state law calls for the request to be fulfilled.

A decade earlier, however, only a handful of counties — which did not include Butler County — fulfilled all of the requests in the audit conducted by the Ohio Coalition for Open Government, which collaborated with Ohio news organizations.

Known as the Sunshine Laws, Ohio’s public records law states that if it is a public record anyone in the general public has a right to receive or review that record. The Ohio Sunshine Laws, an open government resource manual maintained by the Ohio Attorney General’s Office, outlines what is and what is not a public record.

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said Ohio’s open records laws “are among the most comprehensive open government laws in the nation.”

“My number one priority as Attorney General is to protect Ohio families. My office does this in a variety of ways. One way is making sure the public has access to information,” DeWine said. “My office fosters a spirit of open government by promoting Ohio’s Public Records Law and Open Meetings Law.”

With dwindling staff as city and county governments and school districts try to find ways to cut costs, Taylor said a few these important requests — the ones that require large several days or longer to fulfill — are time consuming. State law requires “prompt” or “timely” response based on the request and how many documents are being requested.

“Most of them are simple, basic requests that are fairly easy to fulfill,” she said.

Middletown was not a part of the audit, but Les Landen, the city ‘s law director, said the city gets “a fair number” of records requests, and many of them are for a large number of records.

“As government is shrinking over the years, you don’t have the people dedicated to (handle public records requests) and it falls to people who have 16 other things to do,” Landen said.

If there isn’t a public record available, or in a format as requested, state law says an entity does not have to “create” a public record in order to fulfill a records request. In that instance, Taylor said she would “encourage (the requester) to engage in a conversation … so that they are getting the records they desire because often times people request a record and it is not what they assumed it would be.”

Taylor said they are prohibited from asking why a person wants any public record.

Landen said if a public records request is too broad or vague — or if they are requesting information rather than a record — they’ll encourage the requester to call to talk about what they want so the information they need can be located.

“There is clearly value to people to know things and how things happen,” said Landen. “Obviously, you get people who don’t trust government when they don’t see how (entities) are doing their decision-making.”

The city of Hamilton, along with many other public entities, are working to put more of their public records online. The budgets and finances of the county and some Butler County cities are online, as well as meeting minutes and staff reports. The city of Middletown has several types of public records online, including police reports and court records, which have been online for a few years.

According to the data provided by the Ohio Newspaper Association, more than 90 percent of the requests made in April were granted, and the lion’s share being fulfilled on the day the request was made or the next day.

In 2004, only 70 percent of the public records requested were fulfilled, according to the audit results provided by the ONA.

Some health department records were requested in the coalition’s public records audit. Butler County Health Department office manager Rhonda Smith said they have 80 to 100 public records requests in a given year, most of them deal with people asking if there were any health complaints or environmental complaints concerning a specific property.

“That’s as important to us as the other duties that we have,” she said. “If it’s something we can get a file out and do it now, we’ll do it now.”

Sgt. Ed Buns, Hamilton Police Department spokesman, said all of these services are paid for by tax dollars and “taxpayers have the right to know how their money is being spent and what is happening in the public sector.”

He said the state’s public records law “is very clear” on what is and is not a public record.

“Our mission is to provide exceptional police service, and that includes our responsibility to fulfill public record requests in a timely manner in balance with our primary duty of providing for public safety,” Buns said.

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