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Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Learn How to Access Cleveland Public Records Via Free Text Message Course

Posted By on Tue, Jun 1, 2021 at 1:23 PM

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The Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative, in partnership with Cleveland Documenters, today launched a free text-message-based course to help Cleveland residents learn about, and access, public records.

Seven short "micro lessons," each no more than 1200 characters and designed to take 5-10 minutes, will be sent daily to the phone numbers of those who sign up. The material has been created specifically for regular citizens, to empower them by breaking down what can often seem like an intimidating and complicated process.

The "Public Records are Power" course will include information on what constitutes a public record, how to effectively phrase and format requests, and when to expect responses. Though the information is tailored to the city of Cleveland, including how to navigate the city's "Gov Q&A" public records portal, the principles apply generally and should be helpful to those interested in requesting records from other municipalities or public agencies. 

Cleveland journalist Rachel Dissell wrote the contents with the help of NewsTrain's Linda Austin, a former newspaper editor, and others. She told Scene that giving residents the tools to access records would begin to build a culture of transparency and accountability at City Hall.

"Journalists have liked to complain about public records for a long time," Dissell told Scene. "But complaining doesn't get you anywhere. Opening the doors and inviting other folks to ask for records and be a part of accountability I think will get us further."

Dissell said that as a reporter for the Plain Dealer, readers would often reach out to her to seek help accessing public records. And even after she left the paper, people would find her on her personal channels with questions. She said it became clear to her that people wanted these skills, and that the process was too hard.

"This shouldn't be some mysterious thing, with some magical wording that you need to use," she said. "It's something everybody should have the ability to do."

Dissell said the course isn't meant to replicate the Ohio sunshine laws manual. "This isn't meant to be a master class," she said. "It's a jumping off point." And she sad that ideally, Cleveland would use the requests coming in from residents to help determine what information should be made public proactively. She said she hopes the course inspires current political candidates to embrace transparency and think about ways to modernize records.

The goal is for 500 people to sign up. While Dissell acknowledged that this was ambitious, she mentioned a few perks. Those who take the course can get help from Dissell herself in tweaking a records request. And participants will also be entered into a drawing for $300. Those interested can sign up for the "Public Records are Power" course at this link or by entering their phone number below.

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