No sunshine in Walnut Township
No, we're not writing about our dreary winter weather. This is about the lack of legally mandated sunshine in Walnut Township government.
Last Wednesday, a Beacon reporter made a simple public records request for a copy of a letter from Union Township Trustees to the Walnut Township Zoning Commission. The letter was commenting on a proposed zoning change.
Our first call was to Pauline Ety, township fiscal officerand zoning secretary. She was out of the township office,but was familiar with the letter and told our reporter to call zoning clerk Lisa Ety who could fax it to us. We did so and expected to receive the letter quickly. Some 90 minutes or so later, we hadn't received the letter. When we called Lisa Ety, she told us that zoning inspector Ralph Reeb told her not to give us the public record. Reeb, via Ety, said we must make the request in writing and then they have 48 hours to provide it.
Ironically, last week was National Sunshine Week, highlighting everyone's rights to government information. Last week's Beacon included a guest column from Auditor of State Mary Taylor, CPA detailing legal access to public records. Her first bullet point stated, "Ohio law does not require you to put your public records request in writing."
Reeb and Walnut Township are violating the law by requiring written requests. They are also violating the law by setting a 48-hour waiting period. Ohio Revised Code 149.43 (E) (1) states "…and may not establish a fixed period of time before it will respond to a request for inspection or copying of public records, unless that period is less than eight hours."
ORC 149.43 (B) (1) also requires that public records "shall be promptly prepared" and "within a reasonable period of time." Reeb and Walnut Township also violated this statute. We requested one record - a letter. There were no questions about what record we wanted or whether it was a public record. It was readily available, plus a paid zoning clerk (Lisa Ety) was available to fax it to us. It's not real busy in the township zoning office.
So what's up with Walnut Township? That's a difficultquestion since the last major revision (HB9) to Ohio's Public Records Act requires all elected officials or their "appropriate designees" to attend training approved by the attorney general. It also requires "all public offices"to adopt a public records policy that complies with the law. Walnut Township's elected officials or their designee must have slept through the training session. Maybe the next legislative amendment should include a requirement that they actually pass a written test about their obligations under the law. How about requiring a passing grade before they get their FREE gold-plated health insurance?
Arrogance, with a measure of payback mixed in, is likely the problem here. Far too many officials, both elected and appointed, have forgotten that they work for us all. The concept of a "public servant" has become foreign to too many of them. Some think the public is too stupid to understand their complex issues, while others don't want to waste time by involving the public.
Some Walnut Township readers might be wondering what happened to the township's public notices in The Beacon. Those notices (17 in 2007 for a total of $752.45) stopped coming after a Beacon editorial criticized trustees for playing games with safety in the fire/EMS contract dispute with the Village of Millersport. While nobody likes to lose $750 in revenue, we're certainly not going to sacrifice our credibility for some ad revenue. Of course, that payback hurts township residents more than us. Residents lose timely notice of zoning hearings, special trustee meetings etc. in the most widely read publication in the township. Most residents don't have time to stop by the township officeto check the bulletin board. But some township officials probably consider it "killing two birds with one stone" - payback for our criticism and less public scrutiny of zoning decisions.
ORC 149.43 (C) (1) provides for statutory damages to be awarded for non-compliance with the Public Records Act. We have little patience with public bodies that knowingly violate Ohio law and will seek damages if Walnut Township fails to change its policies and procedures to comply with the Public Records Act. We also offer our assistance to any readers having problems obtaining public records from any lake area governmental entity. Remember, it's YOUR government and YOUR records.