Ohio Auditor Dave Yost’s office conducted a test of 20 counties and cities for Sunshine Law compliance this year, revealing 40 percent — including Elyria — have weaknesses in their public records policies and procedures.
Yost announced the results Thursday during a presentation to the Ohio Association of Broadcasters Board of Directors.
“It’s disappointing in this day and age with all the attention on transparency that we don’t do enough to make sure the people’s records are accessible,” Yost said. “We’ve just got to do better.”
Individual results ranged from full compliance with state laws to the failure to centralize how public records requests are fulfilled and tracked.
During the financial audit of Elyria — a standard audit that is conducted each year by the state and is separate from the performance audit also released earlier this year — a few areas of concern in relation to public records law popped out for auditors.
Carrie Bartunek, spokeswoman for the auditor’s office, said a separate audit looking solely for Sunshine Law compliance was not conducted in Elyria. Instead, auditors inquired into the city’s policies when looking for financial matters. Recommended changes to strengthen compliance were included in the overall management letter that accompanied the release of the audit.
In Elyria’s letter dated June 27, it was pointed out that Elyria’s public records policy is just posted in the law director’s office as opposed to all offices that handle public records. Ohio law states that all public offices should post such a poster in a conspicuous place for citizens to review.
“Failing to post a public records poster in all public offices and locations may prevent the public from being aware of its legal rights to review such records or how to obtain copies,” the letter said.
Law Director Scott Serazin said he could not explain why the posters were not in more places, but believes the spirit of the record law is followed in Elyria.
“In the last two years, we have been working very diligently to provide the training that is required and have the Records Retention Commission meet regularly,” he said. “I have an open door policy involving public records. We have a legal obligation to be as responsive as possible.”
The letter also pointed out that Elyria either should make all employees who handle records be well-versed on what information is considered public or centralize public records requests to one department.
“There is an employee in the law director’s department to handle public record requests. However, any City Hall department could fulfill requests if a citizen asks that department,” the letter said. “If other city departments are not well-versed on what information is considered public, exempt information could be made public or public information could be withheld.”
Serazin said education is always hard when dealing with public records law because it changes frequently.
“It’s a law that is not intuitive or obvious,” he said. “To stay current, you have to read every piece of information or every new case law. It can be a lot to absorb, but staying current is the only way to fulfill the law. The rule of thumb should not be to respond to public records request with ‘We can’t help you,’ but more of ‘How can I help you?’”
Safety Service Director Mary Siwierka said employees are consistently updated on what they should do when approached about releasing records. The law director’s office is not the only place documents can be released, but it is there to answer questions.
“I would say nine times out of 10 we make sure we comply and when in doubt we check with the law director’s office,” she said. “We look to the law director’s office to keep us appraised on what we should be doing.”
Siwierka said requests for information come into various departments daily and management employees in those offices are free to release information at will without going through her, Serazin or Mayor Holly Brinda.
“There are records everywhere,” she said. “We’re not guarding it or hiding it in any way.”