by Benjamin Lanka
Revelations of corruption and scandal by government entities in other areas of the country have underscored the importance of transparency in government.
Yet when CentralOhio.com requested salary and employee information from communities across the state, the responses varied to the extreme. Many governments provided electronic spreadsheets that were simple to understand. Others turned over stacks of paper documents that were difficult to decipher and impossible to analyze. Some governments tried to fight releasing the data altogether.
Andy Alexander, a visiting professional at the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University, said while it was disappointing, it wasn’t surprising the quality of information varied upon who was asked based on numerous similar audits of public record compliance.
“They typically find very uneven compliance,” he said.
Today marks the start of Sunshine Week, a national effort started in party by Alexander, a former ombudsman for the Washington Post, to stress the importance of government transparency. How governments responded to information requests was used as a barometer for how open they are with their records. The actual data from those requests will be analyzed, wherever possible, for future reporting.
In general terms, schools provided some of the best responses to the information requests, with almost all of them responding quickly and electronically. Cities, towns and villages provided varied responses, with some providing paper documents — including old-style printer paper with holes on the side from Zanesville — and others, such as Johnstown, condensing all its information into one electronic spreadsheet. Some counties even included hand-written data listing employee information.
David Varda, executive director of the Ohio Association of School Business Officials, said more than 90 percent of all schools in the state use the same software and school accounting is mandated by the state. He said he wasn’t surprised at the compliance from educators who have gotten used to increased scrutiny — there are online databases listing all school employee salaries.
“Schools are used to being compared to each other,” he said.
Many governments declined to provide certain employee information, such as race and gender. In Heath, the data initially was provided without names by Auditor Keith Alexander out of concerns it would be misused.
“But if you use in my eyes bad judgment and print things not in good taste or good judgment, I can certainly cease my very cooperative nature, and afford you records only according to the law, and nothing more,” he wrote in an email. “I don’t think you guys would like that! I sure hope you get my drift!”
The Heath auditor did later provide the names of employees to go along with their salaries.
Even some governments who supplied all the data — and have done so for years — made it clear they weren’t happy about doing so. Richland County Deputy Auditor Robin Golden said her county one year decided to take the time to prepare a list ranking salaries across departments and now feels compelled to do so annually. She said county systems aren’t designed to create reports and that analyzing data across departments isn’t a “top priority.”
“It’s not about public records requests. It’s about paying employees,” she said.
Andy Alexander encouraged all governments to make their information available to residents digitally because it not only is easier to use, but could save money by making information available online.
“It costs a lot of money to process letters or requests for information,” he said. “Very often that information should be readily available.”
Keeping records in a compact, simple format also could lead to better governance. Bob Hinkle, Ohio chief deputy auditor, said the state sees numerous systems when conducting audits of local governments. Governments with better records typically take less time to audit — the state charges localities $41 per hour for audit work — and they usually get better results.
“Big picture, those entities that are more organized typically have a lower rate of noncompliance,” Hinkle said. “A number of them could do it (organizing data) better.”
This article was written by Benjamin Lanka and originally published on chillicothegazette