Recorder’s mistake will cost county taxpayers

It shouldn’t have taken the involvement of the Ohio Supreme Court to realize that Columbiana County Recorder Theresa Bosel was wrong to delay compliance with a public records request.

The dispute reached the Ohio Supreme Court after an attorney for Roger Hurlbert, a California man seeking electronic copies of 15 months worth of records, filed a writ of mandamus with the court earlier in the year seeking an order requiring Bosel to comply.

Bosel’s first mistake was in not conferring with the county prosecutor’s office immediately. Bosel said she had been told by other county recorders and the Ohio Attorney General’s Office she was not required to comply because the request was “ambiguous and overly broad.”

The Ohio Sunshine law, however, requires that the records requestor be given a chance to “revise an ambiguous or overly broad request,” before a public official has the right to deny.

When Bosel finally consulted Assistant County Prosecutor Andy Beech, he recommended she honor the request, but it was too late. Hurlburt had already filed a writ of mandamus with the Supreme Court.

Besides the “ambiguous and overly broad” excuse, Bosel cited two other reasons for balking at the request.

First, she contended that she was only required to comply with his request if the records were in a format available through her office, and she believed her office software system incapable of transferring the records onto CD or DVD. She told Hurlbert the records could only be provided in paper form and that he would have to pay for them.

Anyone who works with computers should know that if records are stored electronically, they can be reproduced in an electronic format. When Bosel checked with the company she contracts with to provide and maintain her operating system, the company produced CD copies of the requested records for no additional cost.

The Ohio Sunshine Law states, “A requester must specify whether he or she would like to inspect the records, or obtain copies. If the requester asks for copies, he or she has the right to choose the copy medium (paper, film, electronic file, etc.). “

Her second reason was that she was reluctant to surrender the records out of concern about what Hurlbert might do with them, such as selling the data to companies that would use the information to undertake scams against local citizens.

The law, however, states, “… a requester does not have to provide a reason for wanting records, provide his or her name, or make the request in writing.” This may sound like it makes it very easy to request public records, but that’s the idea. Public records, after all, belong to the public, not the officeholder who is charged with maintaining them.

While the law states “There is no set, predetermined time period for responding to a public records request… a public office must provide prompt inspection at no cost during regular business hours, or provide copies at cost within a reasonable period of time. ” Apparently Hurlburt felt that the delay had been unreasonable. He requested the records in May and filed the writ in August.

While the records have been provided, the issue of attorney fees has not been determined. Bosel said she has tentatively agreed to pay $3,000, after consulting with Beech. This was after Hurlbert’s attorney originally demanded $7,000. “I knew I was going to have to pay some attorney fees, but there was no way I was going to pay that ($7,000),” she said.

We’ve said it many times before, but it bears repeating here: Every public official is required to undergo Sunshine Law training in Ohio. It’s the law, but even if it wasn’t, it just make sense. In this case, not knowing and not complying with this law is going to cost Columbiana County taxpayers money.