Information: Dangerous or Empowering?

It's no longer possible to use back-door searches of license plate numbers on the Hamilton County Clerk of Courts Web site to find the name and address of the miscreant who cut you off in traffic

Jan 5, 2005 at 2:06 pm
slim Jim Puvee

Ohio River cuisine: EPA regulators give the catfish an A.

It's no longer possible to use back-door searches of license plate numbers on the Hamilton County Clerk of Courts Web site to find the name and address of the miscreant who cut you off in traffic. On Dec. 21, Clerk Greg Hartmann purged from public display more than 320,000 traffic tickets that had been accessible via the Internet. The citations are public records and still available for view, but now that requires going to the clerk's office in the county courthouse.

"The document image of traffic tickets is no longer available on the Web site, making citizens who receive traffic ticket violations safe from Internet predators," Hartmann said.

You can still type in the name of a politician or your ne'er-do-well brother-in-law and see what kind of traffic tickets they've gotten. The difference is you no longer can see online the ticket itself, which contains more personal information.

Seeking to balance privacy concerns with access to public records, Hartmann formed the Internet Privacy Task Force last spring; the group issued its recommendations last month.

Hartmann isn't the only public official to block certain records from the Internet. Some judges in Domestic Relations Court have ordered divorce records kept from the clerk's Web page.

Watch for still more restriction on Web access to court documents in the future.

"The report of the clerk's task force recommends various changes in the Web site and today's action is the first of many steps in a comprehensive plan to restrict access to the Web so as to protect citizen privacy," Hartmann said.

Even after purging the traffic tickets, the Web page has some rather surprising information on it. As a test, CityBeat typed the name of a well-known political activist arrested during a visit by President Bush and later found not guilty. Among the documents available online are the name, address, photo, social security number, employer, salary and bank account location of the person who posted his bond.

That's more data than is available on the suspect himself. Thus, if such information is a hazard, a person who posts bond is at more risk than the person who allegedly committed a crime.

Public records inevitably detail the stuff of private lives. Access to public records is a hallmark of an open society. But the misuse of the information is a serious problem, making the question of Web access a real dilemma. With 5 million hits a month, the clerk's Web site is obviously a popular tool — maybe too popular for comfort.

Little Victories for the Environment
The Cincinnati Board of Health has again rejected a license for a waste transfer station in Winton Hills. Sought by Waste Management of Ohio, the license would permit an operation that would lead to an estimated 200 trucks full of garbage a day at the site of the former Environmental Land Development Association landfill on Este Avenue.

The transfer station, which would allow trash to be loaded onto tractor trailers for shipment to dumps out of town, has been an issue for five years now (see Burning Questions, issue of June 17-23, 1999). Members of Communities United for Action have complained the operation would lead to smells, vermin and truck traffic that neighbors don't want.

In 2002 the health board denied Waste Management a license, but last year the Ohio Environmental Appeals Review Commission ruled in the company's favor. After hearing testimony from residents of Winton Hills and Winton Terrace, the health board voted Dec. 28 to again deny the license.

Marilyn Evans, executive director of Communities United for Action, says the fight is likely to continue.

"We know Waste Management doesn't give up and will again appeal this decision," she says. "But then we don't give up either, and we are ready to go to the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (OEPA) for the next battle."

Lest you think environmental pollution lasts forever, take heart. The OEPA has announced it is now safe to eat large catfish from the Ohio River — but only once every two months. Previously the OEPA had warned against consuming the fish at all, due to high levels of contamination by polychlorinated biphenyls, commonly known as PCBs.

The main stem of the Ohio River, like the Scioto River in central Ohio, has seen significantly reduced PCB levels in testing by OEPA.

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