Open records provide info

MARIETTA – Have you ever wondered if that neighbor that zooms down the street has ever gotten a speeding ticket in Washington County?

What about how much the city is paying for road repairs? What the property taxes are on that nice house with the big bay windows? The salary of your child’s public school teacher?

All of that information and more is readily available to those who ask for it thanks to Ohio’s Sunshine Law, which requires that public records be made promptly available to anyone requesting them.

Sunshine Week, which began Sunday and wraps up on Saturday, is a national initiative to open the dialogue about the importance of open government and help people understand their rights when seeking public records.

Though there are some exceptions, the Ohio Revised Code broadly defines public records as any record kept by a public office.

Additionally, public records are available to any individual. Requests do not have to be made in writing and requesters need not identify themselves or say why they are requesting the records.

Regarding costs, Ohio law states that “a public office must provide inspection of the requested records promptly and at no cost, or provide copies at cost within a reasonable period of time.”

But despite the vast array of records readily available for public perusal, only a slight percentage of them are actually ever requested, say many public officials.

In the slightly more than a year since he took office, Marietta City Safety-Service Director Jonathan Hupp has not had many public records requests.

“I’ve had about four or five. Outside of that, nobody is interested,” he said.

Hupp has received requests for personnel files, correspondence of council and a file on a proposed dock project in Marietta, all coming from two people and one organization, he said.

Part of the problem, said Washington County Auditor Bill McFarland, could be that a lot of public offices tend to overlap, making it a bit confusing where one should go to ask for certain records.

For example, he said, the auditor’s office could fulfill a record request for how much taxes have been assessed on a particular property previously. However, someone would have to go through the county treasurer’s office to know whether or not those taxes are up to date, he explained.

To make things easier, McFarland has worked to make a variety of records easily accessible on the county auditor’s website.

“We try to make sure things are made available,” he said.

On the website people can easily search for properties, their values, their owners, transfer records, and more, McFarland said.

The Washington County Commissioners are also striving to go digital as far as records are concerned, said Washington County Commissioner Tim Irvine.

Previously, the most requested public record was probably meeting minutes, said Irvine.

Now those are available through 2011 on the website,, which went live just in February, he said.

Not having the minutes available was one of the criticisms that the Sunshine Review had with Washington County’s government website for the 2012 year.

Sunshine Review, a nonprofit that evaluates local governments’ transparency and openness based on the information available on their websites, gave Washington County a “D” grade in 2012.

It also criticized the county’s site for not having budgets, contact information for commissioners, or information on requesting public documents, all of which have been addressed on the new site.

Marietta City Schools Treasurer Matt Reed said the school district gets very few public records requests as far as financial data goes.

“We had one maybe two years ago about wanting to see some information on a project that we were possibly going to do,” he said.

Reed oversees financial records, but has also become somewhat of a catch-all for other public records requests, he said.

Recently the office received a request for the personnel file of former Marietta City Schools assistant treasurer Barbara Mincks, who was indicted in December for stealing money from the school, said Reed.

“Unless it’s something that’s really extensive, I’ll try to get it within a couple days,” said Reed.

For simple requests, such as a teacher’s salary, Reed tries to get an immediate answer.

“We do our best to give them the information they’re requesting,” he said.

Law enforcement agencies tend to handle a slightly higher volume of requests.

“Last year being an election year, there was a tremendous volume of records that were requested,” said Washington County Sheriff Larry Mincks.

Typically, case information is one of the most requested types of public record. Those are released as long as the case is closed, said Mincks.

Other frequent requests include personnel files, video footage and financial records, he said.

Requests for public information do not have to be written, pointed out Mincks.

“The person doesn’t have to identify himself. They can just come in and say ‘I want to see this person’s file,’ and we say ‘OK, come back at this time,'” he explained.

Records are not always immediately available because certain items, such as Social Security numbers and family information are subject to redaction, he said.

The sheriff’s office does not charge to see files, but does charge a nominal per page charge for people who want copies, he said.

Mincks added some commonly requested information is available on the sheriff’s office website. There people can find financial information about the department, a current inmate list and a list of sex offenders living in the county.

New Matamoras Elementary makes use of some of the records on the sheriff’s office website. The school prints out the photos and names of sex offenders and posts them in the school’s office, explained principal Bill Wotring.

“The reasoning is really simple. These people who are listed as sex offenders, I think people ought to know who they are,” he said.

Sometimes people do stand there and look at the offenders and sometimes people even recognize them, noted Wotring.

Marietta police also field more requests for case reports than anything else, said Capt. Jeff Waite. “It’s accident reports mostly. Usually people can just walk in and give them the money and they will print them out,” he said.

The department charges $2 for a basic accident or criminal report and an additional five cents per page for supplementary information such as witness statements, said assistant records administrator Tammy Pate.

Knowing more about how to access public records is a step in the right direction as far as open government goes, said McFarland.

“I am a huge proponent of open government and government transparency. It disappoints me when someone thinks they have to submit a formal public records request for something. Just tell me what you want,” he said.

The Washington County Clerk of Courts, which handles records for domestic cases, felony criminal cases and civil actions, charges 10 cents a page for basic copies or $1 a page for certified copies of documents, said Clerk of Courts Brenda Wolfe.

“They can go through any of the clerks. We don’t have to get a request in writing,” she said.

Certified birth and death certificates cost $25 a copy, said Beth Tullius, deputy registrar for the Marietta City Health Department.

The department can issue certified birth certificates for anyone born in Ohio and certified death certificates for anyone who died within the city limits of Marietta dating back to 1908, she said.

“All they have to do is come in and give us the name and date of birth or death,” said Tullius.

Knowing more about how to access public records is a step in the right direction as far as open government goes, said McFarland.

“I am a huge proponent of open government and government transparency. It disappoints me when someone thinks they have to submit a formal public records request for something. Just tell me what you want,” he said.