Clevelanders: learn to access local public records in a free, fun, text-message course

If knowledge is power, then the skills to get public records are a superpower – one that will soon be available to all curious Clevelanders. 

Want information on how the city is spending taxpayer money? Looking for a police policy or court record? All you have to do is know how to ask. 

The Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative has teamed up with the Cleveland Documenters to create a new, free course of micro-lessons to teach you how to access local public records. The interactive course is texted directly to your phone, once per day for seven days. 

You can sign up here.

Andy Geronimo, director of the First Amendment Clinic at Case Western Reserve University’s School of Law, said that public records can provide “one of the best ways” to learn about how your local government works.

“There’s also an accountability element to it… to serve as a public check on the authority of government,” Geronimo says.

Frank LoMonte, director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida, said that role traditionally has been played by journalists. However, there are fewer and fewer journalists around to do that kind of accountability work.

“Ordinary civilians who don’t self-identify as journalists are going to have to step up and help fill that information gap,” he says.

Making records requests isn’t always as easy as it should be. 

Catherine Turcer, executive director of government accountability organization Common Cause Ohio, says it’s not unusual for requests to get rejected because officials say they are “overly broad,” meaning the request was for too many records for the office to reasonably produce. Or sometimes the document a person is looking for might not exist.

“Sometimes when you do a public records request you're ‘fishing,’” Turcer explains. “You’re just trying to figure out what's going on; that's when it's hardest to figure out what to ask for exactly and the time period.”

That’s where Public Records Are Power comes in.

The course covers topics like:
  • What’s a public record? And what isn’t?
  • How do you phrase a request to get what you want?
  • How long should you have to wait, and what will it cost?
The lessons also walk residents through the process of signing up for and using Cleveland’s Public Records Center website. 

Once a resident completes the lessons, they will get a helpful cheat sheet, with links and tips for finding public information and writing records requests. 

One lucky graduate will also win $300 (It’s not Vax-a-Million, we know).

Residents who finish the course can also ask for feedback on requests before submitting them, as well as for help if they encounter obstacles. 

Follow the Cleveland Documenters and the Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative on social media for more information and Public Records Are Power events throughout the summer. 

This story is sponsored by the Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative, which is composed of 20-plus Northeast Ohio news outlets including FreshWater Cleveland.

Read more articles by Conor Morris.

 Conor Morris is a corps member with Report for America. Morris covered Appalachian southeast Ohio for the weekly newspaper The Athens News for six years. He reported on Athens County, but especially local government, the campus of Ohio University (his alma mater), cops and courts, and the social and economic issues facing the residents of Ohio’s poorest county. Morris helped guide The News toward two Newspaper of the Year awards in its division of the annual Ohio News Media Association Hooper Contest. Morris himself won six first-place Hooper awards for his reporting over the years, including for a story series about police and hospital failures in a sexual- assault investigation in Athens. Morris was born in Marietta, Ohio.