Records delay likely to cost county

LISBON – Although Columbiana County Recorder Theresa Bosel has fulfilled a request from a California man seeking electronic copies of 15 months worth of records, her delay in doing so will likely cost the county.

The dispute reached the Ohio Supreme Court after an attorney for Roger Hurlbert, the Californian seeking the records, filed a write of mandamus with the court earlier in the year seeking an order requiring Bosel to comply with his records request.

Hurlbert, who runs a business collecting real estate records for his clients, filed a public records request with Bosel on May 28, seeking electronic copies of all recorder office documents dating backing to Jan. 2, 2012. He offered to provide the CDS or DVDs.

Bosel wrote back, saying it was her understanding she was only required to comply with his request if the records were in a format available through her office, and she believed her office software system incapable of transferring the records onto CD or DVD. She told Hurlbert the records could only be provided in paper form and that he would have to pay for them.

The next letter came from Hurlbert’s attorney, who told Bosel she was mistaken and the fact recorder’s office documents are stored electronically means they can be transferred onto CD or DVD.

Bosel, who just took office in January, believed that it was impossible for her office to provide the records in an electronic format without making expensive changes to her system. Bosel said she had also been told by other county recorders and the Ohio Attorney General’s Office she was not required to comply because the request was “ambiguous and overly broad.”

“I was under the impression that even if I wanted to do it that I couldn’t,” she said. “I thought I was doing the right thing.”

Bosel later conferred with the Assistant County Prosecutor Andy Beech, who recommended she honor the request. Bosel said she attempted to call Hurlbert in late August to inform she was going to comply, only to learn he had filed a writ of mandamus with the Supreme Court on Aug. 28.

In the meantime, Bosel got with Cott Systems the company she contracts with to provide and maintain her operating system – and they produced CD copies of the requested records for no additional cost.

Bosel said she was also reluctant to surrender the records out of concern about what Hurlbert might do with these records, such as selling the data to companies that would use the information to undertake scams against local citizens.

The remaining issue is whether the county will have to pay Hurlbert’s attorney fees, and Bosel said she has tentatively agreed to pay $3,000, after consulting with Beech. This was after Hurlbert’s attorney originally demanded $7,000.

“I knew I was going to have to pay some attorney fees, but there was no way I was going to pay that ($7,000),” she said.

Hurlbert has been involved in legal action of this sort stemming from other records request around the country. One such request was the subject of an April ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld a provision in Virginia law that allows county officials in that state to deny record requests when they come from non-residents.

Beech said Ohio law makes no such distinction between residents and non-residents when it comes to public record requests.

“Ohio says you have to comply with a public records request, unless there is an exemption,” he said. “Ohio law doesn’t care where you are from or your reasons.”