CLEVELAND, Ohio – Ohio law allows governments a reasonable amount of time to provide copies of documents sought in public records requests. But a request by cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer that Cleveland filled this week would seem to test that limit.
The city provided copies of two forms used by the Department of Public Health – nearly a year after the request was made.
Cleveland.com filed the request Nov. 13, 2020, asking for documents that showed the questions contact tracers in the health department asked people who were exposed to coronavirus to determine who else might have been infected.
On Tuesday, an email arrived in a reporter’s inbox: “The City has reviewed its files and has located responsive records to your request. Please log in to the Cleveland Public Records Center … to retrieve the appropriate responsive documents.”
The documents amount to two blank forms containing questions asked of coronavirus patients for contact tracing purposes.
To be sure, Cleveland’s record on filling public record requests is abysmal. The city, at times, can take weeks to respond.
In April 2020, for example, cleveland.com requested demographic data about people who had contracted coronavirus in Cleveland, including information about age, race and location. Five months later the city rejected the request as overly broad. By then, the city was posting much of the data on the Health Department’s website.
A more extreme example was a request from a Cleveland businessman seeking to learn the name of a Cleveland police officer who issued a traffic ticket in 2016. It took more than two years before he got an answer.
In 2017, Cleveland created an online system that improved tracking of requests.
A year-long delay, such as the one involving the COVID-19 contact tracing documents, is unusual. Indeed, the city filled more than a dozen requests submitted by cleveland.com after the one to the health department.
“The city of Cleveland is committed to improving its public records process and fulfilling citizen requests within a reasonable amount of time,” Mayor Frank Jackson’s administration said in a statement Wednesday. “The creation of an online records portal has better streamlined what was formerly a lengthy, manual process.”
A Jackson spokeswoman said the delay was due to an oversight that occurred as the health department was undergoing reorganization.
Jackson, last September, announced reassignment of the city’s health director as part of a shakeup of the department. The administration also moved the department under the wing of the Office of Prevention, Intervention and Opportunities for Youth and Young Adults and re-opened an Equal Employment Opportunity complaint filed by a department worker.
The moves followed an in-house investigation that looked at the department’s operating structure and culture, employee morale, hiring and attrition, and the loss of $1.5 million in state aid for HIV/AIDS programming.
At the time of the records request, the reorganization was less than six weeks old and the department was short staffed, as it grappled with the coronavirus pandemic.
The oversight was discovered last week when staff in the city’s law department were reviewing outstanding requests on the portal, the spokeswoman said. They alerted the Health Department.
“As with any large, multi-channel organization, there is always room for improvement,” the administration said in its statement. “The fulfillment timeline for [this request] is due to a departmental oversight and does not reflect the city’s greater efforts to improve its records process. Public records should be readily available and we will continue our work to fulfill requests in a timelier manner.”