By Reis Thebault and Emily Tate, Editors at Large
When a Miami University student walked in to the Panuska Development Center — home to the Miami University Foundation — and requested a public record, the employee at the front desk scoffed and asked “What do you need it for?” Perhaps unknowingly, this employee’s latter response was a blatant obstruction of the Ohio Open Records Act, or Sunshine Laws.
This record request was part of an audit of Ohio’s public universities that showed Miami to be among the least compliant with the state’s Sunshine Laws, which require public institutions, including public universities, to provide records in a timely manner.
The Miami Student requested five records at Miami University as part of the Ohio Universities Public Records Audit conducted in January. College students from seven of Ohio’s student-run newspapers audited 12 public universities, requesting records that are unquestionably public. Requests were made in person and requesters did not identify themselves as members of the press.
Of those audited, Miami was one of only two universities whose requests did not result in a single case of compliance (the other university was Cleveland State). Compliance, for this audit, is either providing the record in a reasonable amount of time or referring the requester to the university’s legal affairs department.
Robin Parker, Miami’s general counsel, handles all legal issues for the university. She declined to comment on record for this story.
For three requests, auditors were asked to provide identifying information — ranging from their names, affiliations and intentions in asking for the records — which, under the Sunshine Laws, constitutes an obstruction of the requests. And, in two cases, auditors were told their requests could not be met unless they were submitted in writing. In fact, the law explicitly states that a request need not be made in writing to be granted.
An auditor seeking the amount of money generated by selling tickets at home football games during the 2014-15 season was asked not only to identify herself and whether she was “with the newspaper,” but also to make her request in writing. She was told she wouldn’t get the record unless her request was made in writing.
The auditor who visited the Office of Ethics and Student Conflict Resolution requested the names of university students found responsible for a violent crime during the 2014-15 academic year. The auditor was asked to submit the request in writing before the university could provide him the record.
The auditor who requested the most recent evaluation of the university’s provost from the Office of Academic Affairs was told “I don’t think we have one. She’s only been here a year and I think they only do them every three years.” While it may be true that Provost Phyllis Callahan has not been in her position for three years, the secretary clearly was not sure of her response and did not direct the auditor to the Office of the General Counsel, nor did she make any other efforts to field the request.
Auditors who requested records from the College of Education, Health and Society and from the Miami University Foundation were both asked to submit identifying information. When an auditor requested the College of Education’s operating budget for the 2014-15 academic year, employees asked her name, if she was a student and whether she was part of a group. When an auditor requested the amount of money the Miami University Foundation spent on travel to fundraise for the foundation during the 2014-15 academic year, the auditor was asked why she needed that information.
“It never ceases to amaze me the obstruction that you see, the efforts to dodge, the asking for ‘why do you want to know?’” said Ashlie Sletvold, an attorney for Chandra Law Firm LLC in Cleveland. “[People who] field those requests are unaware of the absolute entitlement of the public. In Ohio, public records are the people’s records. Those who hold them do it as merely custodians for the people.”
Sletvold specializes in enforcing public records requests under the Ohio Public Records Act.
“It exists to keep things open so they don’t become more corrupt, more dirty, more poisonous and disgusting,” Sletvold said. “Miami University has no excuse for not promptly and timely providing you with the records that you request.”
At Miami, training and education about the Ohio Sunshine Laws is limited. But Claire Wagner, director of university news and communications, said employees generally know how to field public records requests.
“I don’t think it’s something that is top of training for people, but it’s in our Policy and Information Manual and, to my knowledge, staff, as needed, know to go through their supervisors, who tell them my office or the Counsel’s office,” Wagner said.
It is official university policy for offices that receive records requests to forward them on to the Office of the General Counsel. However, for the five records requested in this audit, no one contacted the general counsel or referred requesters to the general counsel’s office.
But, Wagner did acknowledge the merit of Ohio’s Open Records Act.
“Being a public university makes it very important for us to be open and transparent … because people need to know how we’re spending and what we do,” Wagner said.
However, Patricia Newberry, a senior lecturer of journalism at Miami and a regional director of the Society of Professional Journalists, said universities’ actions don’t often reflect their professed commitment to transparency.
“I just don’t think that people at this institution or at any public institution embrace the spirit of our open records law in that way,” she said. “That’s sometimes willful and it’s sometimes out of ignorance.”
Newberry suggested the university send out an email to all of its employees on an annual basis, reminding them of the Sunshine Laws and their duty to adhere to it. Sletvold recommended Miami create a short video — just 10 minutes would suffice — that explains public employees’ role in following the Open Records Act.
Whatever the method may be, Newberry said it is the university’s responsibility to provide proper training and regular reminders on how to handle public records requests.
Newberry also said that Miami’s failure to comply with the Sunshine Laws in this audit should prompt the university to address its shortcomings.
“This exercise is a reminder to everybody who works at Miami University that we are a public institution and the majority of records that are created by this institution are public records that can be asked for and should be provided to whoever asks for them,” she said.