Tuesday, August 5, 2003

Opinion sought on Web access


Changes would cost $33,000

By Janice Morse
The Cincinnati Enquirer

HAMILTON - The cost of fixing Butler County's Internet court records dispute is climbing. The cost, originally projected at $15,000, has now more than doubled.

So Clerk of Courts Cindy Carpenter Monday said she's putting the brakes on spending any taxpayer money until the Ohio Attorney General responds with an opinion on the issue.

In the meantime, she's launching a "Turn it On" campaign. Today,Carpenter and her employees will begin wearing round stickers bearing that slogan. It has a dual meaning, Carpenter said: "It means turning on customer service and turning on a hotline to handle Domestic Relations Court calls. It also means, 'Turn the Internet back on - please!' "

The dispute revolves around a July 1 judicial order to remove all Domestic Relations Court information from Internet access, even though the documents are still public records available at Carpenter's office downtown. Carpenter says she has received numerous complaints from office users who were accustomed to obtaining the information they needed with a few clicks of a computer mouse.

But Judges Leslie Spillane and Sharon Kennedy said the move was needed to protect citizens' private information, including Social Security numbers, bank account numbers and other data that could be misused. The judges amended their order and said they didn't intend all Domestic Relations data to be removed, just images of documents that contain the information in question.

But Carpenter said her computer system isn't programmed to separate those documents from public view while allowing case summaries and other information to be accessed. Revamping the system to perform those functions would cost in excess of $33,000 - an unbudgeted expense that excludes the cost of the extra work her employees would do to segregate the items of concern, Carpenter said.

"It does not make sense to me to spend this kind of money, until we hear from the Attorney General's office about whether the judges can impose rules that interfere with my statutory duties," Carpenter said, adding that she expects the opinion within a month.

In response to the "Turn it On" campaign, Spillane said, "I have had numerous people in the courtroom thank me for taking it off the Internet...I feel very strongly that the vast majority of people who have cases in the court do not want their personal information on the Web."

Carpenter maintains there are easier, cheaper solutions to that concern. She suggests that the judges could remove the objectionable information by court order or by blacking out information on the publicly filed copy - and those are among the solutions Attorney General Jim Petro is being asked to consider.

Meanwhile, at the request of some citizens, Carpenter said she and several of her employees would address the County Commissioners' meeting tonight.

They will say the Internet shut-off has interfered with her office's customer-service functions, created computer security issues and interfered with background checks that the FBI and other law enforcement agencies perform.

"Turn it On" campaign

Butler County Clerk of Courts Cindy Carpenter wants a pair of judges to "turn on" Internet access to Domestic Relations Court records. So far, they're not budging.

In the meantime, Carpenter says her office remains committed to customer service, and she has activated a "Domestic Relations case records hotline," 785-6330. That number will be staffed weekdays during regular business hours and dedicates to "do whatever it takes to get that information to the people who need it," Carpenter said.

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E-mail jmorse@enquirer.com




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