Posted December 21, 20213:56 pm
Have you ever wondered…
- Who owns the vacant lot on the corner of your street?
- How much money do government employees make?
This kind of information can be found in local public records available to anyone.
Public records help residents understand what local government is doing. Knowledge allows taxpayers to hold representatives accountable.
Public records are power.
A public record is any record — paper or electronic — that is kept by a government office to document its operation. City, county, and state offices keep records related to services, contracts, and budgets, for example. Some specific records are not publicly available. For example, records in an active criminal investigation, trade secrets of private businesses, medical records, sealed criminal convictions, and Social Security numbers are kept private. Learn which records Ohio law says are public and which are not by visiting https://mbl.fyi/publicornot.
You can find some public records online or in person. You may have to make a special request for other records.
Tips for making a public-records request:
- Ask for records that show the information you want. Don’t ask only for the information. (For example: “Provide records that show the number of traffic stops in Cleveland for expired tags in 2020” instead of “How many traffic stops were made in Cleveland for expired tags in 2020?”
- Be specific. Avoid asking for “any or all” records.
- Use clear time frames.
- Want records for a longer time frame? Make separate, smaller requests to get a faster response.
- Do some detective work. If there is an online form that collects info, ask for what is on that form.
For any request to be successful, the records must already exist. The government doesn’t have to create or gather information to meet your request.
Ohio doesn’t set a deadline for handing over public records, but records must be “promptly prepared” in a “reasonable” amount of time. A simple record like a police report should be available within a day, but a completed police investigation file with hundreds of pages will take longer.
Want to learn more? The Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative and Cleveland Documenters created a free, 7-day, text-message course about accessing public records in Cleveland. You can register for that course by visiting bit.ly/publicrecordscourse.
This article was published in Legal Aid's newsletter, "The Alert" Volume 37, Issue 2, in Winter 2021. See full issue at this link: “The Alert” – Volume 37, Issue 2 – Legal Aid Society of Cleveland (lasclev.org).