Public records requests: York County judge cites 'disturbing trend' in county's responses

Lindsey O'Laughlin
York Dispatch

A York County judge has called out county solicitors' practice of withholding material from the state Office of Open Records during Right-to-Know Law disputes, calling it a "disturbing trend."

Common Pleas Judge Richard K. Renn last month denied a portion of York County's request to overturn an OOR ruling that ordered the county to provide documents to an attorney representing the family of an inmate who died at York County Prison in 2018.

After the OOR granted attorney John Coyle's appeal of the county's denial, York County Prison Board solicitor Donald Reihart appealed to the Court of Common Pleas and introduced an additional affidavit from prison Warden Clair Doll to be included for Renn's review.

Renn stated he'd recently noticed a "disturbing trend" of the county introducing new materials after the OOR has issued its ruling.

The judge quoted a Commonwealth Court opinion that addressed this practice, which stated that accepting additional records at the judicial review stage of an appeal undermines the presumption of openness in the state's Right-to-Know Law.

"Indeed, one might conclude that the County was 'sandbagging' the OOR appeal process since no explanation was given for the recent submission of the Warden's affidavit," Renn then wrote in his own words.

The OOR acts as the fact-finder in Right-to-Know Law appeals, the courts have stated.

York County Prison in Springettsbury Township, Thursday, June 29, 2017. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Reihart said Thursday it would be inappropriate for him to comment on the opinion because the county is appealing Renn's decision to the Commonwealth Court.

Coyle is representing the family of Everett Palmer, a 41-year-old Delaware man who died April 9, 2018, after being locked up in York County Prison for two days.

He requested the county's written policies for providing health care and mental health services to inmates, as well as policies dealing with corrections officers' use of force, how officers should handle mentally unstable inmates and the intake process for new inmates.

He also requested contracts, purchase agreements and training materials related to the Tasers used by corrections officers.

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Palmer died of "complications following an excited state, associated with methamphetamine toxicity, during physical restraint," with "probable sickling red cell disorder" as a contributing factor, according to a 22-page autopsy report from Forensic Pathology Associates in Allentown.

Palmer's family has said they believe he was murdered when he was in inmate at York County Prison.

He was taken to York Hospital after being found repeatedly hitting his head against the door of his prison cell, authorities have said.

Palmer's mother and executrix of his estate, Rose Palmer, filed an official notice in January of her intent to sue York County and others over the death.

The investigation into Palmer's death remains ongoing, Kyle King, spokesman for the York County District Attorney's Office, has said.

Coyle could not be reached for comment.

A past example: In another open records appeal from January 2019, Renn ruled in the county's favor after The York Dispatch tried to access a report prepared by the state Department of Corrections dealing with recommendations for how to improve operations at York County Prison.

Both York County and the DOC denied the newspaper's requests for the report, citing safety and security exemptions in the Right-to-Know Law.

When York County denied the request, the newspaper filed an appeal with the state Office of Open Records. The county did not file evidence with the OOR to support its denial of the request, and the OOR ruled in The York Dispatch's favor, ordering the county to produce the report.

The county then appealed in Common Pleas Court, and Reihart submitted new affidavits and won the case.

Erik Arneson, executive director of the OOR, weighed in on Renn's more recent opinion on Twitter Thursday, saying the judge was "100% correct."

On Right-to-Know Law appeals, one of the Office of Open Records' responsibilities is to develop the record of the case, and the office gives ample time to both sides to provide evidence to support their arguments, Arneson said Friday.

"When that does not happen at our stage ... the outcome is very likely to be that it winds up in court," he said, "which is both more expensive for both sides and more time consuming for both sides."

The OOR level of the appeals process is free for requesters, he said.

Arneson said he wouldn't attribute any kind of motive to specific parties, but he acknowledged that there is a theory about why some agencies wait to present evidence until an appeal goes before a judge.

By withholding certain information from the OOR and then appealing the OOR's decision to the court, an agency could arguably prevent someone from taking the case any further because of the prohibitive costs of hiring an attorney to represent them in court.

"I’m sure that there’s been a time where an agency was trying to delay things as long as possible and came up with that approach and did it," Arneson said.

It's in the best interest of everyone to have these issues settled at the OOR level, he said.

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