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Information requests, interviews often go unanswered by Cleveland officials

City fails to provide transparent government
Cleveland news conference on federal resources coming as part of Operation Legend
Posted at 6:05 PM, May 03, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-03 20:03:29-04

CLEVELAND — Taxpayers spend nearly three-quarters of a million dollars for “public information officers” who often fail to provide public records while blocking requests for interviews with Cleveland city officials.

Our investigation raises serious questions about Cleveland city government’s openness and transparency.

We identified 11 city staffers earning $710,544 who are relied upon by news organizations as “public information officers,” or PIOs, to answer basic questions about what city government is doing, arranging interviews and how it’s spending your money.

Among them:
*Mayor’s Office of Communications—5 employees earning $295,194
*Public Utilities—2 employees earning $167,699
*Cleveland Public Power—1 employee earning $79,227
*Police—police sergeant earning $103,477
*Cleveland Hopkins Airport—1 employee earning $64,947

Public records requests can take months, and in some cases more than a year to answer—and some remain unanswered.

For example, a simple question to the Department of Public Utilities asking how much is being spent on an expensive Cleveland law firm to fight water customers in court took eight months to provide an answer.

More concerning — requests for interviews with city employees are consistently denied.

For example, on April 14, we called PIOs for the mayor, police chief and public utilities director requesting their help with arranging an interview—either socially distanced with masks, or virtually via Facetime or Zoom.

Only a PIO with public utilities returned our call—and eventually told us “higher-ups” at city hall denied our request.

Follow-up emails got nowhere as well.

Instead, Mayor Jackson sometimes conducts Facebook Tele Town Halls, like one in March, where questions are required to be submitted and reviewed before they are asked by a moderator.

Our question was ignored.

A few weeks later, the Mayor hosted another Facebook Live on April 20th.

This time, our questions was again submitted to a moderator.

And this time, the mayor insisted his “communications department does not need my approval” to arrange interviews—despite a public utilities PIO explaining a week earlier that our request was in fact turned down by those “higher-ups” at city hall.

Mayor Jackson insisted he did not know why our request was turned down and advised us “to ask whoever denied it.”

The next day, April 21, we resubmitted emails for our requests for interviews but heard back only from the police department PIO who directed us to the Facebook Live link from the day before.

A leading First Amendment advocacy group warns public information officers across the country—in local, state and federal government—are part of a growing pattern of resistance to providing both access and information.

“It strikes the public as a cover-up,” says Lisa Rosenberg, Executive Director of Open the Government, "when you can’t reach the people you need to reach—and it destroys trust in government, making people think there is something to hide.”

Public officials are elected and paid by voters and taxpayers who expect open and transparent government.

In Cleveland, the Mayor earns $152,502 a year, the Chief of Police $161,529, and the Director of Public Utilities $200,000.

Yet all three continue to avoid interviews—costing you more than money by avoiding scrutiny direct interviews can provide.

“We as citizens are not able to fully participate in our democracy, and importantly, we’re not able to judge whether our elected officials are doing what we elected them to do,” says Rosenberg.

After months of asking for interviews, Mayor Frank Jackson is now planning to offer his first virtual media availability to individual reporters in over a year.

TRANSPARENCY TRACKER

City of Cleveland - 1 - Failed to comply with information requests in a reasonable time frame

Transparency Tracker 1

The City of Cleveland failed to comply with, or in some cases even acknowledge, our repeated interview requests with the mayor, police chief and director of public utilities.

Learn more about News 5's "Transparency Tracker" initiative here.

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