The Pennsylvania Right-to-Know Law (RTKL) provides access to public records in Pennsylvania. Individuals may submit a request for public records to any government agency, and the agency must respond within five business days. If the agency denies the request, in most cases, an individual may appeal and obtain an independent adjudication from the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records (OOR).
Although the RTKL is designed to provide efficient access to public records, agencies may deny requests for numerous technicalities, such as addressing a request to the wrong person or phrasing a request too broadly. Here are tips on how to craft an effective request and avoid lengthy delays.
- Submit to the right person, using the proper form.
You must submit your request to the government agency that has possession, custody, or control of the sought after record. Importantly, you must address your request to the agency’s open records officer and use the proper form. If the government agency has a website, it must post online its RTKL policy and the contact information for its open records officer. The OOR also maintains a searchable database of open records officers. Some agencies, like Harrisburg City and York County, have specific forms or online portals to access public records. Every agency in Pennsylvania is required to accept the OOR’s standard RTKL request form. Submitting the wrong form to the wrong person could delay your access to public records—literally for years.
- Ask for records. Don’t ask questions.
The RTKL requires agencies to produce public records but it doesn’t require agencies to answer questions, explain decision making, or perform research. You need to phrase your request to seek records. Here are examples:
Bad: Please tell me how much money the school district spent on the new athletic field.
Good: Please provide all contracts, vouchers, and invoices related to the construction of the new athletic field.
Bad: Why did the school board choose a synthetic surface for the new athletic field?
Good: Please provide all emails by school board members or the superintendent (between x and y dates) discussing the installation of a synthetic surface at the new athletic field.
- Be specific (fish with a hook, not with a net).
One of the most common reasons agencies deny RTKL requests is insufficient specificity. The RTKL requires a request to be sufficiently specific for the agency to ascertain what records the requester is seeking. There is a three-part test for specificity: (i) subject matter, (ii) scope, and (iii) time. Scope refers to the type of record (e.g., contracts, emails, letters, memorandums, etc.). The failure to address each part of this test may result in a denial. Here are some examples:
Bad: Please provide all communications between school board members and the superintendent over the last year.
Good: Please provide all emails between school board members and the superintendent between January 1, 2023 and March 1, 2023 discussing the new athletic field.
- Negotiate in good faith.
When you submit a RTKL request, the open records officer may contact you to discuss the request. Don’t assume this means the agency is giving you a hard time or hiding something. Open records officers are usually clerical staff who may not be familiar with all the different matters handled by the agency. They simply may not understand what you’re looking for. You may also be asked to provide additional time or to agree to accept records with redaction of sensitive information like home addresses. If you establish a good relationship and act with civility, you are much more likely to receive the information you are looking for in a timely manner.
- Understand what records are public or non-public.
The RTKL creates a presumption of openness, meaning any record documenting a transaction or activity of an agency is presumed to be a public record. However, the RTKL defines 30 categories of records that are exempt from public disclosure. For example, certain personnel records such as performance reviews are unquestionably non-public, and most records maintained by law enforcement agencies are non-public. Access to legislative records and judicial records is largely limited to financial records. Other categories of records may be confidential under other laws, such as election records, and are not subject to access under the RTKL and may only be obtained through procedures outlined in the Pennsylvania Election Code or other applicable laws.
If a record contains both public and non-public information, the agency must redact the non-public information and disclose the remainder of the record. Recently, our firm obtained a decision from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court compelling a school district to disclose a school bus surveillance video with the faces of students blurred.
Agencies often misapply certain exemptions. If an agency denies your request as pre-decisional, investigative, or endangering public safety, you can most likely challenge the denial by appealing to the OOR (to be discussed in a future post).
How long does it take to get public records?
An agency is required to provide an initial response in 5 business days from the receipt of the request. Agencies often invoke a 30-calendar-day-extension due to staffing limitations, to perform a legal review, or to redact non-public information. If your request is too voluminous, the OOR can grant the agency additional time to respond. The OOR has given agencies up to two years to respond to very voluminous, serial requests (which is another reason you should keep your request specific).
How much does it cost?
It depends. Agencies satisfy many requests free of charge. If you are seeking a record maintained electronically, such as an email attachment, the agency is required to disclose the record electronically, and may not ordinarily charge a fee. If the requested records exist only in hard copy, or if the agency must print out a hard copy to perform redactions, it may charge photocopying fees. See the OOR Fee schedule for more details. It is also free to file an appeal with the OOR.
Need more help?
The attorneys in Nauman Smith’s Right-to-Know Law Practice Group have decades of experience litigating public record disputes in Pennsylvania. We have obtained numerous precedent-setting appellate court decisions. Our attorneys understand both sides of public records disputes, as we are trusted advisors to both requesters (news media, political activists, business owners) and government agencies (boroughs, townships, counties, tax bureaus). We provide RTKL trainings to the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors, the Pennsylvania Boroughs Association, county bar associations, and trial courts. We provide an initial one-hour consultation for a reduced flat fee. If you have any questions about making a public records request, please don’t hesitate to contact us.