Ohio bill would hide public employee work schedules from access

Apr. 3—An Ohio House committee is prepared to vote next week on a bill that backers say aims to protect the privacy of emergency service workers but some worry would take away a reporting tool often used to ensure government accountability.

House Bill 265 would exempt from Ohio public records law redaction request forms, affidavits and — most notably — past, present and future work schedules for public employees such as first responders and court employees.

News organizations such as this one commonly use timesheets to investigate concerns such as public employees misreporting their time, working a second job while on the clock, or taking excessive vacation time or overtime.

The chairman of the House Civil Justice Committee said this week that the bill will be amended next week to make timesheets available after three years, and will likely be voted out of committee.

State Rep. Thomas Hall, R-Madison Twp., a primary sponsor of the bill alongside Rep. Scott Wiggam, R-Wooster, testified that there's a serious need to hide such "sensitive" information from the public.

Largely, proponents of the bill worry that a nefarious individual could learn a public service worker's schedule and then prey upon their family and home while they're at work, often for long hours.

Hall told the committee that H.B. 265 would provide first responders with a "peace of mind that their families are safe at home while they are out serving their communities."

State law already has some protections for "designated public service workers," such as exempting their home addresses from public records law and allowing them to request their address be removed from public databases.

The Ohio News Media Association — a trade group representing media organizations across the state, including this one — holds concerns about the state moving to obfuscate more public records and met with bill sponsors to impart the importance of at least making old work schedules public record.

"We wanted the journalists to have the ability to go back if they needed to verify if a certain person was on duty or working on the job on a certain day," ONMA Executive Director Monica Nieporte told this news organization. "We're not in favor of (H.B. 265), but we definitely understand all of the reasons the proponents want to protect the privacy of those individuals."

Public employee schedules, timesheets and payroll records have been used by this organization and others in multiple investigations in recent years.

—The Dayton Daily News reported in 2021 the elected coroners of Montgomery, Warren and Clark counties all had side jobs for other counties that their offices also do business with, raising concerns about potential conflict of interest.

—In 2020, a former Union fire chief and two EMT/firefighters were found in a state audit to have overpaid themselves $75,835, including reportedly falsifying payroll records.

—In 2018, the Dayton Daily News investigated whether Centerville's former police chief taught classes during the same hours his timesheets said he was working for the city.

—Media reports in 2015 led to a state investigation that found a former Ohio lieutenant governor chief of staff and an executive assistant got paid for hours they weren't in the office, including some where their time sheets said one was working but records suggest she was at a hair or nail salon.

—A Dayton Daily News investigation in 2013 used work schedules to reveal that a Montgomery County domestic relations judge scheduled 14 weeks of vacation time in one year, more than twice that taken by her fellow judge.

—A 2013 Dayton Daily News investigation found the city of Dayton housing inspection office paid employees overtime for weekend hours even if they took vacation or sick leave the same week.

—The Dayton Daily News in 2012 investigated the Greene County sheriff's office's payroll and timesheet practices after concerns were raised in a letter to the county from the Ohio Auditor of State.

—Another 2012 Dayton Daily News investigation found 16 Montgomery County employees attended a golf outing while on the clock.

—A former Sugarcreek Twp. fire captain was indicted in 2009 by a grand jury on felony charges of theft in office and tampering with records after he was accused of falsifying time sheets. He later pleaded guilty to an amended charge.

—The Dayton Daily News annually obtains an analyzes payroll records as part of our Payroll Project. Stories have analyzed overtime paid to public safety employees, Greater Dayton Regional Transit Authority bus drivers and others.

After four committee hearings on HB 265, no opponents have testified against the bill. Proponents include various police officers, firefighters, the Ohio Professional Fire Fighters Association, the Ohio Judicial Conference and the County Commissioners Association of Ohio.

Jon Hofstetter, a Wayne County commissioner, told the House committee that he's seen an uptick in public records requests regarding public service workers' schedules. Those requests are from anonymous people, he noted.

"There's no specific form that needs to be filled out that (lets) us know who exactly is requesting this information and to know what their intent may be," Harvey said. "To benefit the public, to keep public officials accountable, I can understand why (it's important to allow) anyone to have the ability, but in certain instances like this here, I don't see the relevancy of seeing someone's schedule and how that's going to help keep public servants in line."

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Follow DDN statehouse reporter Avery Kreemer on X or reach out to him at Avery.Kreemer@coxinc.com or at 614-981-1422.

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