ELYRIA — Nearly all of the public records requests filed with Lorain County public entities during a statewide public records audit performed in April by journalists were granted.
The biggest exception was the Lorain County General Health District, where the auditor, a reporter with Civitas Media, which operates several weekly newspapers in Lorain County, said she didn’t receive a response.
But Health Commissioner Dave Covell said he did respond to an email seeking restaurant inspection reports and birth announcements. Covell provided The Chronicle-Telegram with a copy of an email he sent the day after the request that asked her to contact him “to discuss a littler further so we can make sure you get the records you are looking for.”
The reporter said Tuesday she never got Covell’s email.
Assistant Lorain County Prosecutor Gerald Innes, who provides legal advice on public records requests to the Health District and dozens of other public entities in the county, said he would have been surprised if Covell hadn’t responded.
“I know Dave is usually very good,” Innes said.
The audit also sought minutes for the Lorain County commissioners’ meeting as well as the county’s public records policy and records retention schedule. The auditor noted that county officials “were more than helpful in accommodating any request.”
Innes said providing public records is one of the responsibilities of government and something that workers for the county and other public entities he advises are trained to turn over when asked.
“I think we teach everybody the goal is to get people the records and that’s what we’re supposed to do,” he said. “We’re not supposed to hide anything. We’re not supposed to obstruct.”
Innes said that can sometimes be difficult when people make large or oddly worded requests, but even then public officials are supposed to do their best to provide the information requested quickly.
Public records requests also were made to the city of Elyria, seeking Mayor Holly Brinda’s expense reports and Police Chief Duane Whitely’s salary. Brinda uses her own funds to cover city expenses and doesn’t submit reimbursement claims.
The auditor wrote that the information on Whitely’s salary wasn’t immediately available because the person who would easily access it wasn’t available. But she also noted that other city workers tried to find the information and called her when it was available to be picked up.
Although she wasn’t asked for her name, a city worker did inquire what the auditor’s profession was.
Brinda said it wasn’t policy to ask for personal information and that the city does its best to comply with public records requests. She said even if the city can’t get a large volume of information together quickly, the person requesting should at least be given a status update within three business days.
Ohio law doesn’t set a specific timeframe for providing public records, which are required to be turned over in a “prompt” fashion.
“We’re very transparent about what we do, so we want to respond promptly,” Brinda said.
The auditor reported that it took two emails to receive a response to an emailed request for the city’s public records policy and records retention schedule.
At the Elyria Police Department, where reports from the last shift worked were requested, the auditor reported that the person who handled the request seemed “annoyed” by the size of the request.
But she also wrote that the reports were printed out for her to examine.
Whitely did not return a call Tuesday.
The auditor also asked for the salary of Elyria Schools Superintendent Paul Rigda and noted that she was given a piece of paper with the figure written on it, but no other information.
There were also some problems obtaining the district’s public records policy electronically because of the difficulty of finding email addresses on the district’s website, a problem she also noted with Elyria’s website.
The auditor wrote that the first email she received back from the school district sent her to a broken web link. A school district employee then sent a follow-up email providing directions how to navigate the district’s site to find the information.
The audit, sponsored by the Ohio Coalition for Open Government, a branch of the Ohio Newspaper Association, was conducted in late April by print and broadcast journalists from across Ohio. The Chronicle-Telegram performed the audit in Medina County.