July 23, 2019 10:40:16 AM
For some misguided officials, open records laws appear to be merely a tool they wield to shield actions from public view in some cases or to punish those who have fallen out of favor in others.
The recent approaches to a pair of incidents involving two Columbus city councilmen call into question exactly how the city chooses when to be open with information.
In one case, the city was more than willing, even eager, to share information on an incident involving one council member. In the other case, it appears the city is doing everything within its power to delay and/or withhold information on another council member, who has since retired.
In October, Ward 5 councilman Stephen Jones was implicated, but never charged, in an embezzlement scheme in which a cashier at Bargain Hunt was accused of giving away thousands of dollars in merchandise to Jones and several other customers.
Once information was gathered, the city called a press conference, providing media with details of the police department's investigation, including un-redacted investigative reports. Upon request, the city seemed eager to also provide the store surveillance footage of Jones.
City officials made note of their willingness to share this information with the public as a sign of their transparency, and The Dispatch applauded their actions.
Contrast that to what is happening now in respect to efforts to learn whether Ward 4 councilman Frederick Jackson, who resigned abruptly on July 3, received a sweetheart deal for use of the taxpayer-owned Trotter Convention Center.
Suffice to say, the city did not call a press conference to release that information.
Instead, the city has attempted to block access to Trotter records concerning Jackson's rental of the facility. A city employee attempted to prevent Dispatch managing editor Zack Plair from photographing Jackson's rental agreement, which is allowed under open record laws, and eventually called the police, which led to Plair's arrest. That charge remains pending.
The documents showed Jackson's rental agreement initially was for $625, half the normal rate. The $625 was marked through and $1,400 was hand-written above it.
In an effort to follow up on that story, The Dispatch filed a public records request seeking to learn whether Jackson's payment cleared the bank. The city has sought to discourage that effort, primarily through exceeding legal deadlines to respond to the request and by quoting questionable charges to provide the information. The city estimated it would take $109.18 to provide the four pieces of paper we requested. A breakdown of those charges was not provided -- even upon request -- but included research time, computer usage fees, copy fees and presumably multiple hours of work by the city's chief financial officer.
In phone and email exchanges between Dispatch publisher Peter Imes, public information officer Joe Dillon and city attorney Jeff Turnage, Imes agreed to pay the fee but requested the ability to verify the way the charges were assessed. Turnage denied the request.
It should be noted on Thursday city Chief Operations Officer David Armstrong intervened in the records request standoff between Imes and Turnage and provided the requested documents free of charge.
How does the city account for its wildly disparate handling of these two incidents?
How do the citizens of Columbus benefit from the city's efforts to deny the public, through our reporting, information about the possible misuse of a taxpayer owned facility?
It appears the city's administration views public records laws as shields to protect its own or swords to punish those who have fallen out of power.
These laws are neither meant to protect nor to punish, but to preserve a promise to citizens to conduct city business in an open, transparent and fair way.
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