Protecting an open society

You may not have realized it, but the week of March 12-18 was national Sunshine Week.

Sunshine Week is sponsored annually by the American Society of Newspapers to promote the importance of open government and freedom of information. Participants in this observance usually include news media, civic groups, libraries, nonprofits, schools and others interested in the public’s right to know.

Our Morning Journal reporters are given the assignment annually to request public records from various governmental entities. We send our reporters into geographical areas that they don’t normally cover, in the hopes that they won’t be recognized. This way they can request records anonymously, just as the public has the right to do. Our bid to remain anonymous, however, usually doesn’t work anymore because our veteran news staff is pretty much known throughout Columbiana County.

This year we decided to seek personnel files of several Columbiana County police chiefs. Even though some may be surprised to learn this, personnel files of police chiefs or any public employee are public records covered by the Ohio open records law. With only a few exceptions, which are detailed in our reports that begin on Page 1, our local government officials were mostly compliant with our requests.

We were dismayed to learn that the fiscal officer at Wellsville Village Hall apparently had not been trained in the law and initially refused to turn over the records. After asking in person, our reporter then put her request into writing, which she was not required to do by law, and emailed it to the office. The next day our reporter heard from the village solicitor who said that the information she requested was being prepared, however, we did not receive the information in time for publication of this report.

Ohio law requires that officials elected to statewide or local office receive three hours of public records training for each term of office. The training is offered several times throughout the year in various places around the state, as well as online. More information regarding training is available on the Ohio Attorney General’s website.

Police chiefs are public servants who are paid with taxpayer funds. They should be evaluated frequently, or at least annually, and those evaluations should be included in their personnel file, along with any records of reprimands or disciplinary action, as well as any commendations or positive documentation.

Then, the written evaluations should be available to the public immediately upon request — not 24 hours later, not after a written request and without the requester having to identify themselves or give a reason for the request. You, as a member of the public, have a right to know what is going on in your government, and that’s what Sunshine Week is all about — making sure government officials are following the law and educating the public about its right to know.

We take our role in this important democratic process very seriously and so should you.