Court sides with York County over Dispatch in open record dispute

Lindsey O'Laughlin
York Dispatch
York County Prison in Springettsbury Township, Thursday, June 29, 2017. Dawn J. Sagert photo

A York County judge ruled last week that a state Department of Corrections report concerning York County Prison is not subject to public access, potentially affecting future open records rulings in the county.

The York Dispatch has been trying since September to access the record, particularly the financial portions.

In his ruling, Judge Richard K. Renn said that although the report contains financial information regarding salaries and suggestions to reduce overtime, that information doesn't meet the standard to be considered a financial record under the state's Right-to-Know Law.

"Requestors ask us to expand the definition of 'financial record,'" the ruling stated. "In the context of this case, we decline to write into the statutory definition something which is not there."

The Right-to-Know Law defines a financial record as "any account, voucher or contract" dealing with the receipt or disbursement of funds by an agency or disposal of services, supplies and materials.

The definition also covers records pertaining to salaries or other expenses paid to an officer or employee of an agency and to financial audit reports.

"We felt very strongly that there was information in this report that the public needs to know, deserves to know, but the county had legitimate security concerns," said Pat DeLany, editor-in-chief at the newspaper. "We ended up asking a judge to decide that, and this is his ruling."

DeLany said he respects the judge's decision but that it might be time for the state Legislature to revisit the Right-to-Know Law to ensure the public has adequate access to records.

The court's decision to limit the definition of a financial record to exclude the salaries and overtime pay of prison employees was legally incorrect, said Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association.

The judge's ruling states that the portions of the DOC report dealing with costs "do make more than a mere passing reference to finances."

The ruling goes on to state that the report contains analysis of salaries, allocation of personnel, suggestions about how to reduce overtime and the command and employment structure, which are all "significantly financial" in nature.

"That right there is enough to trigger access under the law," Melewsky said. "I think in this case, the court just got it wrong."

The judge also said that revealing the financial analysis could expose deficiencies within the prison system.

Craig Staudenmaier, the attorney representing The York Dispatch, also said he thought the court "took a somewhat narrow view of a 'financial record' definition," but that the judge's decision was well-thought out and well-reasoned.

"We knew it was going to be an uphill battle because of the large security issues involved," Staudenmaier said.

Donald Reihart, solicitor for the York County Prison Board, said he agreed with the judge's ruling and that the report is not a public record.

It makes no sense to publish information dealing with security and the confinement of inmates, Reihart said.

"We’re a good prison," Reihart said. "I think we’re a better prison now, and the overtime is really only a minor issue here as far as that report is concerned."

When York County denied The York Dispatch's initial request for the report, the newspaper filed an appeal with the state Office of Open Records.

The county neglected to file evidence with the OOR to support its denial of the request, and the OOR ruled in the newspaper's favor, ordering the county to produce the report, but the county appealed.

At this point, the newspaper does not intend to file an appeal with the commonwealth court to overturn Renn's decision, DeLany said.