It's a jungle out there

Georgia Dunn was not surprised when she learned that Ohio school districtsperformed poorly in an Ohio Coalition for Open Government study gaugingcompliance of the state’s open-records law.

The audit’sresults, released in June, showed school districts released records the same dayor the next less than 30 percent of the time — the lowest rate of any typeof public body included in the statewide audit.

Dunn, Ohio JournalismEducation Association state director, said compliance with open-records laws hasnot been a high priority for schools. She hopes the audit teaches studentjournalists that just because a record is public, does not mean the public willhave easy access to it. In the Ohio audit, more than 90 individuals fromvarious media outlets and universities presented themselves as regular citizensto request public records from county governments, school districts and policedepartments. 

Auditors sought from each of Ohio’s 88 counties onerecord from each of the following categories: county board meeting minutes,county executive expense reports, police chief pay, police incident reports,superintendent compensation and school district treasurer phonebills.

Ohio is one of more than 25 states where compliance withopen-records laws has been tested through a systematic audit in the last fewyears. A group of public policy students conducted the first systematic freedomof information audit in Rhode Island in 1997, said Charles Davis, executivedirector of the Freedom of Information Center. Since then, open-records auditshave become increasingly popular, Davis added.

While open-records auditsseem to be sweeping the country, relatively few student journalists or studentpublications have done them. Davis hopes to change that.

“So far,audits have tended to be statewide projects, these big massive things. I lovethem, and I think that they will continue …But there are a lot of niche auditsthat are just sitting there,” he said. “There are a milliondifferent audits you can do at the local, county, municipallevel.”

Freedom of information experts agree that audits, includingthose done by student journalists at the high school and college levels, canprovide valuable statistics about open-records law compliance, are a greatlearning tool and can be the impetus for change.

At California’sChico State University, a group of seven journalism students put together asmall-scale “niche audit” of local and campus agencies in 2001 aspart of professor Glen Bleske’s advanced reporting class.

Thestudents requested 18 public records from a local college, a school district, acounty office, a police department, a sheriff-coroner’s office and severalChico State departments. Some of the requested records include meeting minutesof public bodies, logs of 911 calls, landlord citations for health and safetyviolations and the salaries of public employees The Chico State auditrevealed varying rates of compliance. The Chico Police Department provided the911 logs with no problems, but students looking for the names and salaries offull-time Chico State professors were sent to three separate offices and thentold to look on the Web for the information. 

Their search ended when auniversity library employee led them to the salary list.

“Theimportant thing is that student journalists go out and ask for public documents.Student journalists should be doing that before they leave a university,”Bleske said.

Davis agrees. He sees campuses as an untapped source ofniche audits.

“There is the potential for all types of audit work,and some of it is very interesting at that micro-level,” Davissaid.

Through a grant from the Society of Professional Journalists’Sigma Delta Chi Foundation, Davis has compiled information from state freedom ofinformation audits and produced a one-stop “audit toolbox” to helpother groups looking to do their own audits.

The FOI Audit Toolbox willcontain everything needed for a group with virtually no background in FOI toquickly and effectively create a statewide or local records audit, statedDavis’ proposal to Sigma Delta Chi. It is expected to be published onSPJ’s Web site in early September.

“The [FOI] Center would bemore than happy to consult with groups thinking about conducting audits, helpdevelop questionnaires and training sessions for requesters, help analyze auditdata and work with audit participants to develop story lines andsidebars,” Davis stated in the FOI Audit Toolbox proposal.


Bleske describes an open-records audit as being like shootingfish in a barrel.

“You’re going to run into people who areidiots, they don’t understand the law, they don’t understand thatpublic documents are public,” he said.

According to Bleske, it is aforgone conclusion what is going to happen — some people will comply andsome will not. A 2003 Montana open-records audit revealed that more thanone-third of requests to police were denied. Sheriffs’ departmentsviolated a California open-records law 80 percent of the time, a recent auditreported. 

In the Ohio audit, about 60 percent of requests for police incidentreports were not granted on the same or next day. Yes, audits provideuseful statistics about who complies with the law, but advocates argue that itis the stories behind the numbers that matter.“

Audits bringattention to the issue. They can provide really compelling anecdotal evidence ofthe denial of access,” Davis said. “A lot of times when youtalk to lawmakers about this problem they say, ‘Aw, that’s nothappening,’” he added. “Audits get right at that by saying,‘Not only is it happening, but this is how often it happens right here inyour own backyard.’”

Kaye Spector, general assignmentreporter at Cleveland’s largest newspaper, the Plain Dealer,participated in the Ohio audit. Her request to the Cleveland Heights PoliceStation is counted in the 60 percent where information wasdenied.

“The first thing they said to me was, ‘A policereport isn’t public,’” Spector said of her experience.“A police commander insisted on knowing who I was and what I wanted tolook at the police incident reports for. I just kept telling her, ‘Idon’t think I have to tell you that.’”

The policecommander was wrong — under Ohio law, she had no right to know why Spectorwanted the incident reports, which, indeed, are public records.

After thecommander “got snippy” with her, Spector said she left the officewithout receiving a copy of the record.

Many auditors have similar denialof access problems, some much more harrowing thanSpector’s.

“I think its real value is in documenting how badit really is in order to be able to press for change. It pushes legislators andpolicy-makers that there is a problem. I don’t think they are very willingto admit there is a problem,” Davis said.

After the Ohio audit, thestate’s attorney general and top legislators called for greateropen-records law compliance, with some offering suggestions on how to bettereducate record-holders. Although no legislative action has been taken yet, theOhio School Board Association sent a newsletter and a guide about Ohio’sopen-records laws to all Ohio superintendents, school district treasurers andschool board members.

The dismal results of a 1999 Illinois auditprompted then-Attorney General Jim Ryan to push the General Assembly to pass alaw that would give citizens the ability to appeal denied requests to theattorney general and local prosecutors. 

“If you have met this kindof resistance to compliance, and it’s statewide, we’ve got a problem, andwe better do something about it, and I will,” Ryan told the AssociatedPress at the time.

After passing the House, Ryan’s revision died inthe Senate.Influenced by a 1999 audit, New Jersey passed a sweepingoverhaul of its open-records law. The amended law stipulates that only recordsthat are expressly listed are closed to the public — all other records areopen. It also created a Government Records Council to handle open-recordsdisputes.

While Bleske and Davis say public agencies do not seem to learnmuch from an audit, at the very least, audits show the need for record-holdersto be educated on the issue.

How to Audit

An audit consists of much more than going to an office and asking forrecords. It is a multi-step process that requires planning and coordination.Davis’ FOI Audit Toolbox takes auditors from making the decision toconduct an audit to planing, execution and publishing theresults.

“It’s going to contain everything from trainingprotocols to the electronic copies of every audit that has been done to date,all of the various documents that have been requested in various audits, sampleletters, sample training scripts — everything you need to do anaudit,” he said.

When deciding what public records to request,Davis and Bleske agree that it is important to be sure that they are, in fact,public records.

“Go after really basic governance stuff,”Davis suggested for student journalists. “Ask yourself, ‘What arethe basic governance documents of your [school]?’” 

The scopeof the audit is one of the first things audit leaders need to decide –will it be a collaborative effort, who will request the records and from where.Davis recommends that student publications at different schools work together toproduce a multi-campus study of open-records law compliance. A publication can,however, decide to keep the audit on a smaller scale and in-house.

Toensure accurate results, the auditors must all follow the same methodology. Inthe Ohio audit, Spector said she met with audit leaders to decide how she shouldapproach public officials. Her leader told her that it was important that all ofthe auditors give the same responses to questions. 

Bleske said auditors shouldbe prepared to meet suspicion from record-holders.In most states,record-holders are not allowed to ask for names or identification from therequesters or the reason for the request, but the Ohio audit leaders went overwith auditors how they should answer such questions if they were asked. 

Spector was told to pose as an anonymous, regular citizen to request therecords.“

They really wanted us to play it a certain way,”she said. “A really important part of the audit was to not disclose thatwe were reporters.”

Davis said audits are all over the board on theconfidentiality issue, but it is something that must be decided early on. In anaudit he helped coordinate at the University of Missouri at Columbia, Davis toldthe students not to identify themselves as reporters unless it wasnecessary.

“If you walk into a government office and flash presspasses around, you are treated much, much differently,” he said. “Itgives the journalist the experience of the citizen. We get paid to get thesedocuments. We’re promoted and evaluated based on how aggressive we are.It’s good for journalists to get the experience of being the citizen…just walking into the office.”

Bleske told his students notto lie, but not to first identify themselves asreporters.

“It’s very different to go in and say,‘I’m a reporter, I’m doing this story and I want thisinformation.’ If they say, ‘Sorry I can’t get that foryou,’ you can say, ‘Who is your boss and why won’t you give itto me.’”

Open-records audit experts say publishing theresults of an audit is necessary. Articles about the audit provide theinformation needed to spark change to improve compliance. The FOI Audit Toolboxgives suggestions on how to write an audit story with a “punch.” 

With the release of his toolbox, Davis wants see to more audits done bythe student press. He said journalists needing assistance performing an auditshould contact him at the FOI Center.

“There will be no moreexcuses. Anybody could do it,” he said.