It’s not quite time for New Year’s resolutions, but we’ll count last week’s launch of GovQA as one by the city of Cleveland that represents a much-needed step in addressing what has been its slow and inadequate process for responding to public records requests.
Public records “should be readily available, and we want to streamline the process in which citizens receive information,” Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson said in announcing the online portal in October. He acknowledged that the new system “is not the final answer, but an important first step in a comprehensive eort to fulfill requests in a timelier manner.”
That’s not a high bar to clear, since prior to the launch of GovQA, public records requests had to be made in person, by letter or by email. (If you’re so inclined, you can still make requests in person at City Hall.)
Under the new system, people who file requests through GovQA will be able to track progress of those requests online and will receive email updates on their status. The site also has sections called “Find Information” that enables users to search for an answer to a specific question or browse frequently asked questions, and “Trending Topics,” which will allow public access to information without filing a formal request.
Assuming the system works as advertised, that’s real progress.
But improving IT capabilities is only one part of the equation.
We trust the mayor means it when he talks about meeting information requests in a “timelier manner.” Journalists and others seeking public records from the city of Cleveland have long complained about slow response time. Cle v ela n d S c e n e , for instance, on Nov. 10 published an account of an update it had just received on a public records request made t h r e e y e a r s a g o . Those kinds of delays are unacceptable in what should be a technology-enabled era of open government.
Also, the new system doesn’t automatically make publicly available information that the city chooses to keep confidential. This issue came up more recently, and most prominently, when the city and Cuyahoga County drew criticism for their refusal to release details of the local bid for the Amazon HQ2 project. They considered the information proprietary, but the public surely had a right to know, with some redactions of sensitive information, what kind of tax incentives were being oered.
We don’t expect that the city will immediately meet the standard of public records compliance that journalists, good-government advocates and others would like to see. But we are encouraged that GovQA is a move in the right direction that will help give all citizens access to the information they deserve about the actions of their local government.
The right notes
The Cleveland Orchestra is one of the region’s jewels, and it shines a little brighter this month with the announcement of a $15 million pledge from board president Richard Smucker and his wife, Emily.
The gi, which is in celebration of the orchestra’s 100th season, is designed to fund artistic and education programs, with an emphasis on programs for young people. The Smuckers are designating $3 million of their pledge as challenge grants, which will be used “to inspire the Northeast Ohio community to support the orchestra as the ensemble enters its second century of musical excellence and community engagement.”
Engaging the community has become a hallmark of the orchestra.
A recent story in S ym p h o n y magazine noted that since the 2010 launch of the orchestra’s Center for Future Audiences, “more than 220,000 young people” have taken advantage “of a broad range of new opportunities to attend Cleveland Orchestra concerts.” Today, 20% of the classical concert audience is made up of patrons 25 years old and under, an increase of 12% in the last six years.
The Center for Future Audiences was created with a $20 million lead endowment gi from the Maltz Family Foundation. The Smuckers’ pledge should make a similarly large impact, and we hope members of the community rise to the challenge of helping to keep this cultural powerhouse strong.
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