Why you should be concerned about secrecy in local government, public records
(This opinion article represents the collective viewpoint of the Akron Beacon Journal's Editorial Board, which includes two editors and four community members.)
The concept is simple enough. Local governments, school districts and other agencies funded by taxpayers and run by elected officials are subject to open records laws allowing citizens to inspect records documenting public work in the spirit of transparency.
Joe Q. Public can get a copy of the mayor's expense reports to ensure money is not being wasted. The local newspaper can get copies of contracts the school district enters. Anyone can inspect the personnel file of a public employee.
The reality in 2023 is far more alarming, with public officials increasingly using complicated exceptions to refuse requests entirely or improperly redact information.
The Akron Public Schools recently denied an Akron Beacon Journal request for a contract the district signed with Hennes Communications, a crisis communications firm, and invoices citing attorney-client privilege. The newspaper's attorneys objected on the obvious grounds the documents are public records under Ohio law. Three months after the original request was made, APS relented and provided the Nov. 8 contract and first three invoices totaling $16,790.
We've commented before on our records and secrecy concerns with the city of Akron, which the newspaper sued in November after the police department redacted the names of eight officers who shot and killed Jayland Wallker and the names of those involved in two other fatal shootings. The matter which focuses on personnel records, not the criminal investigation, is still pending before the Ohio Supreme Court.
But that's far from our only concern with the lack of transparency in City Hall.
Nearly every records response from Akron's Law Department begins with a claim that our request is "ambiguous or overly broad." That's government-speak for "we really don't want to produce these records" and it's often used for blanket denials, including our iniitial request last year for police radio traffic the night Walker died.
The wording even found its way into our very specific response for the personnel file and January communications about discipline for former city employee Mark Greer, who is now running for mayor. It took Akron four weeks to respond, and we surprisingly learned the city does not keep personnel files for non-classified employees. To its credit, Akron produced some records that clarified what led to Greer's departure, allowing us to more accurately cover the race.
In Canton, the investigation of a fired employee at Stark Metropolitan Housing Authority has been kept secret so far because the agency asked its attorneys to handle the probe. The agency is now claiming attorney-client privilege and denying the public the opportunity to learn the full facts, including why the employee was allowed to be reinstated and then immediately retire.
Public records are often the key to accurate journalism and telling stories that may otherwise go unreported.
They helped us more fully report on violence issues in Akron's schools recently, cutting through the rhetoric with facts.
And records helped us partially explain why the University of Akron chose to part ways with its successful women's basketball coach, although the school used a federal privacy law to withhold details of a complaint against the coach. Even if the university's refusal is legally correct, its overall response has denied students who fund sports and the public any level of reasonable explanation.
This week marks the annual Sunshine Week when advocates of open government call for greater access to the public's business. We believe transparency builds trust — even if it creates momentarily embarrassing headlines.
We call on every local government to ensure it approaches records requests from a position of openness even when complying with legal exceptions to records releases or redactions. It's an important aspect of being a public servant. It's also the law.
For our part, we will continue to fight for records whenever necessary.
This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: Why you should be concerned about secret public records