Washington County schools, government offices offer info on the web

Photo illustration by Janelle Patterson Property tax records input from the Washington County Auditor’s Office are updated through an online server nightly.

MARIETTA — Since 1954, meetings held by any government agency, elected board or appointed commission have been open to the public across Ohio.

Then in 1963 those entities’ records were required by the state legislature to be available upon request to the public.

But in the more than 50 years since those “sunshine laws” were passed, the way society communicates, records and stores information has evolved at an accelerating rate.

“It’s not even just emails and basic browsing on your desktop anymore,” said Jon Grimm, vice president of Grimm Scientific in Marietta. “People are more and more looking information up on their phones and expecting to find everything they need from forms to calendars to paying their bills online.”

Nowadays, Internet databases, email communication and online calendars have become second nature to many as a tool for research and monitoring of public movement.

But there is only one public record required to be made available online in the state of Ohio.

According to the Ohio Revised Code, sex offender records must be posted on a public website without waiting for an individual public records request.

“How often we update depends upon when a registration status changes or when new offenders move into the area, it’s on an as-needed basis,” said Washington County Sheriff Larry Mincks. “And we do send an officer out every one to two months to confirm their addresses. If they don’t register with us or register a change of address we do charge them.”

Parents of minors especially utilize the site.

“I have checked twice in the past for my neighborhood and another neighborhood where my child and other children I care about have spent time,” said Amy Elliot, of Marietta. “There were a couple that I was worried about and wanted to make sure I knew their descriptions.”

Likewise Susie Evans, of Marietta, was concerned when she had heard that a convicted sex offender had moved into her neighborhood.

“I heard that one had moved into my neighborhood and I wanted to make sure I knew where for the safety of my kids,” she said.

Though the sex offender data is the only required public record outlined by the ORC to be made available online, the ORC also notes that county auditors’ websites may be seen as fulfilling the public records request law.

By posting maps, reports, forms, delinquent taxpayer lists, property ownership data, a levy calculator, property transfer procedures, previous tax rates and unclaimed funds, Washington County Deputy Auditor Matthew Livengood said the office utilizes the Internet to provide public access to information.

“The county auditor’s website is updated every night with the information we put in throughout the day on any change in property value or ownership,” said Livengood. “Then whenever a new tax rate list is available or other changes outside of our direct software link are needed, I email our web administrator and they get that information or PDF up within a few minutes of my request.”

Municipalities, county townships and school boards of education/trustees do not have any legal requirement to post agendas, directory information or previous meeting minutes on their websites but the practice has become more common.

Marietta City Council Clerk Nancy Johnson said she updates the city’s website with meeting schedules, and when possible the agendas for committee and regular council meetings.

“We are supposed to have meetings posted at least 24 hours in advance but there’s no requirement to post the agendas,” said Johnson. “But if I have an agenda for a meeting I do try to get those up as well. Plus, I also post copies of adopted legislation after council passes them within 24 hours.”

But the information available online varies because of a lack of regulation.

“This was a service council decided to provide six years ago even though it hasn’t been required by law,” said Marietta City Law Director Paul Bertram. “As is the online version of the city’s codified ordinances, it’s a service so that individuals don’t have to purchase the giant green book with all our codes in them or to go to the library to look up the city’s laws.”

In Washington County the most access seems to appear at the municipal and county levels and for most school districts, but two of the 25 county townships do also maintain websites.

“As a zoned township we felt it was the easiest way to provide zoning regulations for people to read and even get our contact information out there for people to call us,” said Muskingum Township Trustee Carolyn Dempsey. “I’ve had residents call and have been able to walk them through our zoning codes. But I also post our notices for our meeting on our site. It isn’t fancy but the information is available.”

Likewise, Barlow Township’s website is basic, but provides trustee meeting minutes and contact information to its residents in web form.

“It just makes it nice for the township taxpayers to keep up with what’s going on,” said Barlow Township Trustee Richard Best. “And our minutes are posted after they’re approved at the (subsequent) trustee meeting.”

Other public records of meeting agendas, minutes and newsletters for county-wide agencies are available on the Washington County website including the Washington County Behavioral Health Board meeting agendas and minutes, Behavioral Health Steering Committee meeting minutes, Board of County Commissioners agendas and meeting minutes, Board of Elections agendas, meeting minutes, notices and elections results, County Home newsletter, Independence Township chairman reports, news and meeting minutes, Local Emergency Planning Committee previous meeting minutes, Multi-Jurisdictional Hazard Mitigation Plan, RSVP Volunteer Voice newsletter and Washington County Sheriff’s Office sales.

Local school districts also vary on what information is posted to their websites.

Marietta City Schools provides only the email contact information for its board of education. Belpre City Schools, Fort Frye, Warren and Frontier local school districts, and the Washington County Career Center all provide both emails and phone numbers for their board members.

“Our philosophy with our website is that if you can’t find what you need in three clicks, we’ve lost you,” said Belpre Superintendent Tony Dunn. “So our website may seem squished but it’s updated at least every week so that the information you need as a parent, an employee, a student or a coach is all readily available within a couple clicks.”

Frontier Superintendent Brian Rentsch said his district’s website, which was updated this school year, also has adequate resources for parents, staff and students.

“You want to try and make it as user-friendly as possible,” he said. “And we have even begun to put up the unofficial minutes after a board meeting so that people know what has gone on without having to wait a month for those minutes to get approved.”

But Wolf Creek Local Schools and Washington State Community College do not provide meeting minutes online.

“Maybe that’s something we need to discuss,” said WSCC Trustee David Vandenberg. “The board meeting minutes are available in person at the college but if accessibility online is what the trend is for education then we could look into adding some on our end too.”

Agenda posting is only practiced by Belpre, Fort Frye and Frontier and the most common practice in terms of minutes posting is to do so after the previous meeting’s minutes have been approved by the board.