RTK Question/Answer with Terry Mutchler, Executive Director, PA Office of Open Records and Craig J. Staudenmaier, RTK Attorney at Nauman Smith Shissler & Hall, LLP
Staudenmaier: What tips or pointers would you like requesters to follow as they begin this month to make requests for public records under the new Act?
Mutchler: I want requesters to use good judgment when seeking records. Don’t use this law to harass public officials. When you make a request, be as specific and concise as possible when seeking records so that agencies can readily identify the records sought. I would also like for requesters to use a spirit of cooperation and patience as we all get this new law up and running.
Staudenmaier: What major services will the Office of Open Records (OOR) provide for both requesters and agencies over its first year?
Mutchler: Our office will be a resource to answer questions from both requestors – for example, how do I file a RTK request and, are these types of records generally available? We will also focus on timely response to appeals filed with our office, including an offering of mediation services.
Staudenmaier: What tips or pointers would you like agencies to follow as they begin to respond to requests for public records under the new Act?
Mutchler: I want agencies to remember that we as public servants are here to serve the public. Records of a public body don’t belong to the public body, they belong to the citizens and when a request comes in we should look at this as part of our job, not additional work but part of the fabric of services offered. As I suggest to requestors, I think that agencies should demonstrate a spirit of cooperation and patience as we get this new law up and running. Also, the more public records you can put on your website the fewer requests that you will receive. Make the process as simple and as understandable as possible for citizens by using simple forms, making information available and being willing to answer questions.
Staudenmaier: What tips or pointers would you like both requesters and agencies to follow when they need to contact OOR for assistance/questions or for appeals?
Mutchler: Our office is always happy to be a resource. But, we strongly encourage agencies and requestors to try and work out a solution at the local level BEFORE coming to the Office of Open Records and filing an appeal. When you file an appeal, please be sure to include all the information asked for in our process.
Staudenmaier: What have you found is the greatest misconception about what the new Act does for public access from requesters and agencies views?
Mutchler: The biggest misconception by agencies that government is going to stop with this new law. And the biggest misconception by requestors is that they think they will obtain every single document in government, including those legitimately withheld under this new law.
Staudenmaier: What have you found is the most overlooked aspect of what the new Act can do for public access from requesters and agencies views?
Mutchler: I find that agencies have recognized the full power of what this law can mean for them in reducing work. By opening up their records, getting them on a website and available, many people won’t feel the need to file RTK requests. Also, I think that requestors are often jaded by the process of government and fail to recognize that they can have access to very important information about the workings of their government.
Staudenmaier: When do you anticipate having final regulations in place for the OOR?
Mutchler: The Interim Regulations on available now. The promulgation process will happen during the new legislative session.
Staudenmaier: There has been much discussion about appeals to your office and how hearings will be handled, particularly in areas of the Commonwealth some distance from Harrisburg. What is OOR’s plan on how to handle appeal hearings when necessary in these instances and are there items that agencies and requesters can alert OOR to in order toassist with the conduct of hearings in these instances?
Mutchler: The Office of Open Records does not intend to employ hearings on a regular basis. In most instances, a RTK dispute will be able to be resolved based on the submissions to our office by all parties. We will employ hearings in only exceptional cases. Our goal is to make sure that when a hearing is conducted it is done so in the most reasonable, convenient and thorough fashion for all parties, including time, location and resolution. Again, the OOR encourages in the strongest possible terms that agencies and requestors make every effort to resolve a RTK dispute prior to the issuance of a decision by the Agency and certainly prior to the filing of a formal appeal.
Staudenmaier: Next year, on 12/31/09, when you look back over the first year of the new Act and your office’s accomplishments, what would you like to see to have occurred during that first year?
Mutchler: The Office of Open Records wants to look back on the year and say that we fulfilled our mission of providing top shelf resources and advice to citizens and agencies related to open government and enforcing this law fairly and evenly. We want to look back on the year and say that we served this law, which is our primary client, very well. The OOR is very pleased that we have established guidelines, a website and conducted more than 70 trainings around the state. We want to continue to provide detailed and helpful information to citizens, public officials and members of the media to ensure that the Commonwealth at all levels of government provide access to public records to citizens. I want to be able to look back on the year and know that the OOR made great strides in restoring the concept that citizens own their government, not public officials. I want this office to be able to say that we applied this law fairly and evenly regardless of who requested the records and more importantly regardless of which level of government held the records.
Staudenmaier: Thank you very much.
Mutchler: You are quite welcome.