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Cleveland law director unsure how 764-day public record request went unfilled, insists process is improving

March 23, 2018 GMT

Cleveland law director unsure how 764-day public record request went unfilled, insists process is improving

CLEVELAND, Ohio – The city’s law director says she doesn’t know how a public records request seeking to learn the name of a Cleveland police officer who issued a traffic ticket managed went unanswered for more than two years. 

The request, submitted by Cleveland businessman Jon Kozesky, was emailed to Law Director Barbara Langhenry and her public records team in February 2016.  

The city recently called Kozesky about the request, and on Wednesday told him it could take some time before he got an answer. 

Langhenry, in an interview Thursday, said she didn’t know what happened. 

“I don’t know why it wasn’t responded to,” Langhenry said. 

Previously: Cleveland says it needs more time on 764-day record request, filer says 

The public record request was submitted Feb. 16, 2016, the same day Kozesky was stopped for making an illegal U-turn on West 6th Street. In his request, Kozesky asked for the name of the officer who wrote the ticket and provided a badge number, the shift during which the officer was on duty and the police district in which the traffic stop occurred. 

“This is something that should have been tracked down pretty quickly,” he said.  

After the city left him two phone messages, Kozesky finally talked with someone from Langhenry’s public records staff on Wednesday – 764 days after he filed his initial request. 

The case is an example of criticism that is often levied at Cleveland city government – that it fails to provide public records in a timely manner, as required by state law.  

Attorney David Marburger, an expert on Ohio’s public records law who co-authored a book on the subject in 2011, said the time involved for the city to handle Kozesky’s request as “outrageous.”  

“What do they have, like 30 officers who all have the same badge number,” Marburger said in an interview with cleveland.com. “That’s laughable. It’s just too funny.”  

Ohio law requires that public records be “promptly prepared and made available for inspection to any person at all reasonable times during regular business hours.” Copies must be provided “within a reasonable period of time.”   

A coalition of news organizations, including cleveland.com, has contemplated suing the city, contending that it is violating state law with its slow response to records requests.   

Late in October, Mayor Frank Jackson’s administration launched a records-management system called  GovQA that allows records requests to be filed through a portal on the city’s website. People making requests can track the city’s progress toward providing public documents and receive updates via email.   

That system also alerts the law department when records requests get bogged down in other offices of city government. 

While Langhenry didn’t know how Kozesky’s request went unanswered, she knew why her staff was calling him. It is part of an effort to catch up on a backlog of records requests, she said.  

Langhenry has people assigned specifically to address a backlog of cases filed before the electronic system went online. She expects to add two more to the records team once City Council approves the 2018 budget next Monday. 

Of nearly 2,600 records requests filed through the law department in 2016, about 1,200 remain open, Langhenry said. 

More than 2,300 were filed in 2017 prior to the launch of GovQA. About 1,000 of those remain open. 

After GovQA was launched, more than 2,800 record requests were filed in all city departments, including for police records, before year’s end. Just over 100 of those remain unfilled.  

The city’s response time since the electronic system was launched has sparked some complaints. And Langhenry acknowledged Thursday that while it will help to speed up the process, staff still will need to follow up to make sure requests are answered. 

“An electronic system on its own isn’t going to solve all your problems,” Langhenry said.