State court to weigh in on York County public records case

Aimee Ambrose
York Dispatch

Who’s in charge of York County Prothonotary Office employee records? And, of those records, what information does the public have a right to access?

These questions have played out for the past two years, creating a “very confusing” procedure as the issue worked its way through the state's Right-to-Know process. An upcoming decision could lead to asking the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to settle the issue.

The legal saga began in July 2020 when The York Dispatch sought information under the state’s Right-to-Know law about prothonotary office staff — names, job titles, pay rates and hiring and departure dates — since Allison Blew became the county’s prothonotary that January.

York County Prothonotary Allison Blew

County officials and the county judiciary initially denied the information, arguing the county can’t release judiciary records due to separation of powers.

There was then some back-and-forth over which branch could release the documents, whether the judiciary was responsible or if the county kept them.

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An appeal to the state Office of Open Records led to the office throwing the case back due to a lack of jurisdiction, citing an inability to resolve the question of who should provide the information.

The case then went to Common Pleas Judge Clyde Vedder. He ruled against the Dispatch in January 2021, saying prothonotary staff fall under the judiciary and the county can’t unilaterally release their records.

He also ordered the county to have a records manager to review the documents to determine their release. That manager later approved providing most of the sought-after data, except for the beginning and end dates of prothonotary office staff — information the Dispatch and attorneys argue is critical piece of information involving public personnel.

“That’s what we’re still clawing our way toward,” said Paula Knudsen Burke, an attorney for the Dispatch via the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

A second separate appeal, involving a similar Right-to-Know process through the judiciary, went before Common Pleas President Judge Maria Musti Cook. She also denied the petition.

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The two cases were joined together and went to a three-judge panel of the state’s Commonwealth Court last week.

Knudsen Burke argued the prothonotary staff data are county records, that the prothonotary’s office is considered a county office, and that the office's employees are considered related personnel to the judiciary.

“We submit that these records are county records,” she told the panel.

Michélle Pokrifka, York County solicitor

Michélle Pokrifka, York County solicitor, stood with the lower courts’ decisions to deny the open records request that went to the county.

She sided with the stance that prothonotaries are part of the judiciary.

“I don’t know who could be more administrative to the court than the prothonotary office,” she said.

Knudsen Burke pointed out that regardless of whether the request should go through the county or through the judiciary, the data sought should still be made available.

She argued both tracks for seeking public information, whether through the Right-to-Know Law or through the judicial route, have similar positions on making financial records available.

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And the details sought by the Dispatch, staff hiring and departure dates, are critical components of financial records, she argued.

Knudsen Burke asked the Commonwealth Court panel to overturn portions of the county courts decisions, remand them back to the York County Judicial Affairs Department and have the prothonotary staff service dates released with the other data that was provided.

The panel took the arguments under advisement and will issue a decision at a later date.

After that, either side would then have a month to decide whether or not to ask the state’s Supreme Court to hear an appeal of the ruling.

“We’ll have to wait and see how the decision comes down and assess appeal after that,” Knudsen Burke said after the Sept. 12 hearing.

— Reach Aimee Ambrose at aambrose@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @aimee_TYD.