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Want to be a government watchdog, but don’t feel comfortable writing? Snooping through government public records is a great way to help sniff out government waste, fraud, and corruption – without ever having to leave your home. Then tip us on your findings!
Ohio’s “Sunshine Laws” are the Ohio Public Records Act (OPRA) and the Ohio Open Meetings Act (OOMA). You can find an extensive user-friendly guide to utilizing these statutes at the Attorney General’s website.
What Qualifies as a Public Record?
A “public record” is defined as “records kept by a public office.” Records can take the form of documents (paper or electronic), email, video, map, blueprint, photograph, or a voicemail message.
“Public offices” include all state and local government offices and agencies, as well as public school district offices. However, a private entity may be subject to OPRA if there is persuasive evidence that the organization is a “functional equivalent” of a public office.
How Do I Submit a Public Record Request?
Anyone may submit a public record request – including non-Ohio residents. You may make your request by phone, in person, or in an email or letter. It is recommended, however, that you put your request in writing as a courtesy, and to document when you submitted your request.
Address your request to the public records custodian or manager. If you intend to submit your request in writing, you may want to call to verify who manages public records requests.
The most important part of your request is that you be clear and specific about the records that you are requesting, otherwise it may be refused. You may specify what medium you would like the records sent to you in (paper, PDF, film, electronic file), or indicate to have the record sent in the same medium as the office keeps them in.
There are trade offs to both options. If an office has to mail records to you, they are permitted to charge you for shipping costs, prior to sending them to you. However, some offices may not have an electronic copy, or be able to easily scan and email the documents, and may be able to get the records to you more quickly by copying it and mailing it to you. Not all rural offices are as tech-savy.
An office may not charge you for the employee time used to fulfill your request.
What If I Don’t Get a Response?
OPRA requires that an office respond within a “reasonable” period of time. If you do not hear back within a week, follow up to determine the status of your request (and to insure they received it). If the agency takes overly long to respond, that alone can give you a story, and give you the opportunity to highlight the lack of cooperation in transparency efforts.
What If My Request Is Denied?
The public office is required to give you what basis, including the legal authority, upon which your request is being denied. There are some records that are required or permitted to be withheld from public release. If your request was denied because it was deemed too vague, the office is required to give you the opportunity to revise it.
If you believe that a public office wrongly denied your request, or has taken longer than a reasonable amount of time, you may request free mediation service from the Ohio Attorney General’s office to help resolve the dispute. Ultimately, you may also file a lawsuit against the office. The office will then have the burden of demonstrating to the court that the record was subject to a valid exception. If they cannot, they will be required to release the record, and may be subject to penalty and paying attorney fees. You may not request a mediation after you have filed a lawsuit.
Where Should I Start?
Make sure that what you are requesting is not already online. Most of the state’s public sector collective bargaining agreements are online.
Follow the money. The money trail is always very telling. According to the Ohio Sunshine Laws Guide, “Contracts and financial records of moneys expended in relation to services provided under those contracts to federal, state or local government by another governmental entity or agency, or by most nonprofit corporations or associations, shall be deemed to be public records, except as provided by R.C. 149.431.”
Find out where the money is coming from and going to. What are public employees allowed to get away with while on the taxpayers dime? How much does your school district spend on healthcare for its employees? What is in your superintendent’s contract? What is in your teachers’ contract? What services does the sanitary department hire for? What crazy projects are in the budget? Does your school district spend money on lobbying?
Here is a great template for your letter. Remember, you can email me at Ohio@WatchdogWire.com for story ideas or interest in becoming an Ohio watchdog. Check out this tip sheet on ways to get started. Interested in reporting for Watchdog Wire – Ohio? Click here to sign up! Shine some light on government waste, fraud, or abuse this week!
Tags: citizen journalism, journalism, Ohio, sunshine week, transparency, Watchdog
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