The right to review or have copies of public records is afforded in the state of Ohio through the Ohio Public Records Act. Someone interested in a public document makes the request, the public office finds the document, makes a copy and produces the document. Sounds easy, right? While most requests are that simple, sometimes it is complicated process and a thorough review of the Sunshine Laws is required. Even still, a records request can be denied.
One such request made by the News earlier this year was for the results of a psychological fit for duty exam required by the city for a firefighter. The request was denied by the city law director citing O.R.C. 149.43(A)7(c), which states that “medical information,” among other personal information regarding firefighters such as home addresses and telephone numbers, were exempt from public records.
Ohio Public Records Act, however, specifically addresses “physical fitness, psychiatric and polygraph examinations” and renders them public record because they do not meet the standards of a “medical record,” which would document “the process of medical treatment.”
“Records of examination performed for the purpose of determining fitness for hiring or for continued employment, including physical fitness, psychiatric and psychological examinations are not “medical records,” states the OPRA. However, an exception, as stated by the law director, is allowed for first responders and several court employees.
The city used this basis not only to deny release of the record but to neither “affirm or deny (the psychological evaluation was given). Again, this is part of the privacy act,” Safety-Service Director Joel Daniels told the News during an interview on Feb. 2.
If the assessment is not considered “medical” in nature, how does it maintain an exception as “medical information,” we asked. This is where the Ohio Public Records Act gets tricky and confusing. It’s not unusual to find footnote after footnote in reviewing OPRA and it is important to diligently review this often precedent-setting background information.
Two footnotes I found very interesting included cases that questioned the definition of medical records, one specifically addressed fit for duty evaluations.
Multimedia Inc. v. Snowden heard by the Ohio Supreme Court in 1995, argued that an assessment used to determine employability was not a medical document and therefore a public record. In this case, the court upheld a 1990 decision when “the court held that documents containing opinions of psychologists sought by a sheriff to assist him in making a decision as to an employee’s suitability for continued employment were not medical records.”
The 1995 case ruled that “the police psychologist report in this case was not obtained in the process of the applicant’s medical treatment. Instead, it was garnered to assist in the police-hiring process. Therefore, the psychological report that is part of the requested records is not a medical record that is exempted from disclosure.”
I read this and question why our request was denied. While the OPRA was established to make government more transparent, it can be hard to navigate with the exceptions to the rules and the ambiguous language that is open to interpretation despite case law cited in OPRA.
After being denied the results of the psychological evaluation, and the city’s refusal to confirm an evaluation was given, the News took a different route and requested any invoices received by the city in 2018 for psychological or medical evaluation/ examination of city employees on Feb. 7. It took 33 days, several reminder emails and “an extensive review of our records,” according to Auditor Terry Scott, for the News to receive a copy of the invoice dated Jan. 26, and approved for payment by Daniels on Jan. 20. The document stated a fit for duty evaluation of former Capt. Mike Treisch was administered Jan. 25, seven days before he resigned. The city was billed $1,500 for the evaluation.
When Daniels was asked Monday why they city wasn’t transparent when asked if the evaluation had taken place, he said based on legal advise the assessment wasn’t public record and he “chose not to” say it happened.
Ultimately, the News was able to confirm the evaluation was administered. This is an example of why the Mount Vernon News is a relevant and important part of the fabric of Mount Vernon and Knox County. Holding our local government accountable — especially on the little things — is our responsibility. Having access to public records, fighting for access or finding a different route to similar information is a right that we proudly share with the citizens of Ohio — regardless of the difficulties that arise in the interpretation of the OPRA.
Samantha Scoles is the managing editor of the Mount Vernon News. She can be reached by calling 740-397-5333, ext. 248, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.