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Laura Johnston
By Laura Johnston February 7, 2011

Some steps taken to make public records more available, but there's still work to be done

Backing up his pledge for transparency, Ed FitzGerald said in a Plain Dealer survey last year that he would make records deemed public under state law available to county residents on demand.

The Cuyahoga County executive has adopted the existing county public records policy, which states that citizens do not have to put records requests in writing and that routine requests, for papers such as meeting minutes, budgets and salary information, should be satisfied immediately. He has kept public news releases coming about his actions and appointments. And he has hired two people to make requesting -- and getting -- information easier than it was among the separately elected fiefdoms of the former county government.

For example, information requests used to disappear in county Engineer Robert Klaiber"s black hole of an office. But since FitzGerald took over, spokeswoman Nicole Dailey Jones has delivered a 2010 audit The Plain Dealer requested.

But the new spokespeople have also slowed the process of procuring information, which was once fairly easy to get from county Administrator James McCafferty.

Jones and John Kohlstrand don"t have the institutional memory of county procedures and statistics, so it can take them days to provide answers. Reporters waited weeks for the resumes of all FitzGerald"s appointments.

A more recent example involved getting names of county workers who also were involved in partisan politics.

FitzGerald announced in January that he will enforce a law that bars civil service workers from holding partisan political positions and gave employees until Friday, Feb. 4, to tell the county whether they hold any such positions in the community.

The Plain Dealer made several request for a list of those employees on Feb. 4, and was told by a spokesman late in the day that the information would not be compiled until Monday, Feb. 6.

On Monday morning the spokesman said it probably would not be released until the end of the day, or possibly not at all that day. He said human resources was still compiling the information.

And, in fact, the day passed without the county providing the requested record. The newspaper finally got the list on Wednesday, Feb. 8.

The spokespeople have also added a level of bureaucracy. Now, some county employees -- who used to provide basic information on demand -- have been reticent to provide basic information, such as a list of payments for the taxpayer-financed medical mart and convention center, for fear of ticking off the new boss.

FitzGerald"s staff seems to have good intentions. And we get that there"s a learning curve. But the hassles and delays show this is still a work in progress.

So for now, we move the promise meter to In the Works.

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