Watchdogs: COVID-19 made transparency worse in Pa.

Lindsey O'Laughlin
York Dispatch

Public access advocates told state legislators Tuesday that long-festering issues with government transparency got worse during the COVID-19 pandemic, and one watchdog targeted York County directly.

Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, told the House State Government Committee that as of February, people who submitted a Right to Know Law request to York County's open records email account received an auto reply stating that the county's open records office was closed.

All requests sent to the county during that time would not be considered "received" by the county until the open records office reopened to the public, she said.

"It's inevitable that that kind of response or that kind of posting on a website will discourage people from seeking access," Melewsky said, "Or, at a minimum, cause questions about whether or not the Right to Know Law is actually even applicable during the pandemic."

Melissa Melewsky

York County has been responding to all public records requests, county spokesperson Mark Walters said, despite the memo that the office has been closed, a point Melewsky also brought up.

But the auto reply still sent a mixed message to requestors, she said.

Melewsky was one of several speakers at the hearing, chaired by Rep. Seth Grove, R-Dover Township.

Other speakers included Cate Barron, president of PA Media Group, which publishes the Harrisburg Patriot-News. Officials from the state Office of Open Records and local government leaders also testified at Tuesday's hearing.

State agencies and local government offices have grappled with the extra challenges of responding to Right to Know Law requests during the pandemic, at a time when the public is more eager than ever for access to information, officials said.

But in some cases, the pandemic has only worsened issues that have plagued the Right to Know Law for years, such as the Disease Prevention and Control Law being used too broadly to block detailed information about the pandemic from public view, Barron said.

The Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg

Barron said the media has no plans to publish the names of people who are in the hospital with COVID-19, but that demographic information, such as the effect of the disease on different age groups, are matters of public interest.

Without the demographic data, which Gov. Tom Wolf's administration has refused to release citing the decades-old law, the media hasn't been able to tell the full story of how younger people have been impacted, Barron said.

"We knew, anecdotally, that there were a lot of people in their 20s and 30s, sick in the hospitals, suffering from COVID," she said. "(We) did not have the information."

Melewsky suggested that records under the purview of the Disease Prevention and Control Law should also be subject to the Right to Know Law, which already has several exceptions that protect sensitive or confidential information.

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