Cleveland City Hall accused of deliberately impeding public record requests

Mayor Frank Jackson responds

Cleveland City Hall accused of deliberately impeding public record requests
Red Room at Cleveland City Hall

CLEVELAND, OH (WOIO) - Cleveland 19 News has uncovered accusations the city of Cleveland is deliberately slowing down responses to legitimate public record requests to impede legal cases, media inquiries, and even union employees seeking a fair contract.

Cleveland’s deliberate slow response times to public record requests became ‘life and death’ issue

Private investigator Rob Slattery was assigned by the court to assist attorneys defending a suspect accused of a murder in the parking lot of the Lancer Motel.

Slattery made a standard request to police. Records of all police calls to the location.

“I waited 277 days for the records,” Slattery said.

That’s right! 277 days for records he could have gotten with a couple of strokes of the key board when he was a cop.

In frustration, Slattery filed this complaint with the Ohio Court of Common Claims alleging the city violated state law by not providing him with the requested records within a “reasonable period of time,” as required by law. “I missed numerous pre-trials where this information would have been used in the defense,” the complaint reads.

“I’ve actually labeled the City of Cleveland public record purgatory. You just sit there and it’s a hell,” says Slattery.

Slattery is certainly not alone. Cleveland 19 News has found dozens of similar complaints filed against the City of Cleveland by the public, the news media, even some of the city’s own employees and their unions over public records requests delayed, denied, or ignored.

Just last week, The Cleveland Association of Rescue Workers sent the City Council a letter claiming the union has filed “several public record requests” for data on EMS operations and response times but has gotten nothing.

“If you don’t have the information you can’t fight them. Certain information you need to move forward in lawsuits, or arbitration, or litigation or any of that stuff you need the information so you could walk in with the information in your hand,” said Paul Melhuish, President of C.A.R.E Local 1975.

So why does it take so long? Sometimes hundreds of days for the public, for private investigators, attorneys, the media, even some of the city’s own unions to get basic information from the city. Is there a policy to deny or delay?

“Two-hundred and seventy-seven days is long, but I don’t know the particular case, “acknowledged Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson when Cleveland 19 asked him about Slattery’s complaint as well as others filed against the City.

“It’s not a matter of policy I can tell you that. Now, when something goes in for a public record it goes to the law department and they have a process of review to see what is proper and what is not,” said Jackson.

David Malik is a well-known civil rights attorney in Cleveland and said there’s nothing proper about the city’s procedures.

“It’s a concerted effort. It is a pattern and practice. It is a designed plan to frustrate transparency,” Malik said.

The EMT’s union sued the city and won attorney’s fees but never received the information it sought. Rob Slattery sued the city and won, eventually receiving the records he sought long after they were relevant to his case.

“They deny, deny, deny and just wait and push everybody off and most people give up. They just get so frustrated they say to hell with it,” Slattery said.

As for Mayor Jackson, the mayor claims he’s never heard concerns about the city’s responses to public records requests.

“I say to you everything can be improved upon and I would imagine this is one area that could be improved upon as well,” the Mayor said.

Ohio lay may require responses within a “reasonable period of time,” but a reasonable period isn’t defined. In Rob Slattery’s case, the court sided with him but concluded it has no authority to force the city to change its procedures.

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