Open Records Law Puts Onus on Agencies

HARRISBURG — Four months, $100 worth of long-distance phone calls, meetings with an attorney and, finally, the intervention of then-House Speaker John Perzel’s office.

That’s what it took for Maya Patch to obtain copies of her local sewer authority’s spending records a few years ago.

“I wanted to see the books. I wanted to know about monies being spent, and I got a runaround. They said, ‘I’m not sure if you can look at that,’ or ‘We’ll give it to you next time,'” said Mrs. Patch, 70, of Carroll Township, Washington County.

“When somebody is evading you like that, you figure they’re hiding something. People have a Right-to-Know what’s going on,” she said.

On Thursday, Gov. Ed Rendell signed a law, long in the works, to make government records more accessible.

It creates the presumption that a government record is open unless the agency proves it meets specific exemptions. It requires agencies to respond to records requests within five days, establishes an appeals process and institutes fines for willfully withholding public documents from those who request them.

“There is a new attitude and a new approach” to providing records to the public, said House Majority Leader Bill DeWeese, D-Waynesburg. The law will be fully implemented in January.

The 11-month delay in full implementation is appropriate, said Craig Staudenmaier, a Harrisburg attorney specializing in public records cases.

“It’s going to be a total culture change for employees. They’re going from, ‘Well, it’s not open unless it fits into these narrow categories’ to ‘Everything is open unless it meets these few exceptions,'” Mr. Staudenmaier said.

In some cases, the act makes it a legal requirement for government to continue providing records it already has been providing. In other cases, when agencies haven’t been giving up documents they were supposed to hand over, it forces them to comply with the requirement that was already in place.

What is clear is that reports of restaurant health inspections and day care center inspections will be more accessible now. So will time-response logs from emergency dispatch centers and records of judicial spending — which courts had been providing recently, even though they weren’t legally required to do so. Lawmakers and advocates for the open records law haven’t been able to provide an extensive list of other records that will become available under the law.

“It’s difficult to say exactly what’s going to be public because we don’t know everything that’s out there,” said Deborah Musselman, director of government affairs for the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association. “The law doesn’t say, ‘This, this, and this are now open.'”

One area where not a lot will change is police records, many of which can remain private. Time response logs are public and judges now have the discretion to determine if tapes of calls to 911 will be released.

One thing clear to public records advocates is that recent government scandals — like lavish expenditures by the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Authority and the secret distribution of millions of dollars of bonuses to state employees — would not have taken place if Pennsylvania’s open records law had been in place years ago.

“If we had opened these records up before, we wouldn’t have 90 percent of the problems we have,” said state Rep. Tim Mahoney, D-South Union, a freshman credited with pushing the reform measure.
Mrs. Patch, meanwhile, is just happy she won’t have to wait months next time she wants a copy of an agency budget or has a question about school spending.

“I hope now people can get records to find out what government is doing without running into problems,” said Mrs. Patch, who years earlier fought an unsuccessful battle for a listing of salaries in her local school district because she wanted to understand why teachers were threatening to strike.

The new law should go a long way toward helping people like Mrs. Patch, said Steve Miskin, the former Perzel aide who helped in her fight with the Carroll Township Sewer Authority.

“The information she had been attempting to get should have been considered open, and she should have been able to get that information all along, but she was blocked month after month,” said Mr. Miskin, now a spokesman for House Republican Leader Sam Smith. “She was asking for budgets. She was asking common-sense questions. Why should she have had to hire an attorney for that?”

Other Pennsylvanians will benefit from the law, said the Pennsylvania Library Association, a proponent of the new law.

Librarians frequently direct patrons to state and municipal agencies for property records, meeting minutes and other documents. Too often, the patrons return, saying they were denied access, said Mary Garm, president of the Pennsylvania Library Association and administrator of the Lackawanna County Library System.

The new law will provide librarians with “a better opportunity to work with state and local governments to help our patrons get the information that they want and need,” she said.

Other groups have concerns about the law.

Common Cause of Pennsylvania, for example, has said that the new Office of Open Records should be an independent agency, not an arm of the Department of Community and Economic Development, which is part of the executive branch.

Tax attorneys are concerned about a provision that allows counties to charge “market value” for copies of databases showing property assessments, ownership information, square footage of homes and other information they use to argue for reducing their clients’ tax liability.

“Market value” is too subjective and gives counties too much leeway in assessing cost, tax attorneys say. They fear that large companies that resell such information might be willing to pay several thousand dollars for the information, and that could increase the cost for everyone.

The law isn’t perfect, but it goes a long way in making Pennsylvania more accountable to the public, Ms. Musselman said.

While newspaper organizations were among the central advocates for the legislation, they and their readers aren’t the only ones who will benefit, Mr. Staudenmaier said. He thinks the effect will be far-reaching.

“The more the average citizen can find out about his government, the more informed he is going to be and the more trusting he is going to be,” he said. “Information makes people better able to make choices in the voting booth or to complain to an agency or their representative if they don’t think things are being done correctly. In the end, everybody gets a better government.”

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