After 4 months York County won't release public information; other counties did so in days
The York Dispatch is in a legal battle with York County for information that Pennsylvania's Office of Open Records has stated is clearly a public record.
The newspaper first requested basic information about prothonotary office employees — including names, pay rates, job titles and dates of hire — in late July.
The York Dispatch sought the information from York County officials and from York County's judiciary but was repeatedly denied by both entities.
York County solicitor Michélle Pokrifka maintains it's up to the judiciary to release those records, not the county. York County Court Administrator Paul Crouse and President Judge Joseph C. Adams have said the judiciary doesn't keep those records — the county does.
The matter has now been appealed to York County Common Pleas Judge Clyde W. Vedder.
York County Prothonotary Allison Blew responded Nov. 12 to a request for comment, saying:
"The Office of the Prothonotary does not administer Right-to-Know requests, even if the information requested is about my Office. It is not appropriate for me to comment about an ongoing case."
The national nonprofit Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and its local legal-initiative attorney for the area, Paula Knudsen Burke, are representing The York Dispatch at no cost.
On Friday, Nov. 6, the newspaper made the same public-information request to Adams, Dauphin and Lancaster counties, to see how those counties would respond.
Dauphin County replied that day, indicating it was reviewing the request invoking its right to a 30-day extension to do so.
On Thursday, Nov. 19, less than two weeks after the request was made, Dauphin County provided The York Dispatch with the names, titles, pay rates and start and end dates of its prothonotary clerks.
Prompt responses: Adams County responded to the Dispatch's request the same day, providing the names, job titles, dates of hire, length of service, 2020 annual salary and, where applicable, employment end dates of its prothonotary office workers.
Less than three business days after the request was made, Lancaster County's open-records officer provided The York Dispatch with the sought-after prothonotary information, including employees' names, compensation rates, job titles and dates of hire.
That county's open-records officer, Tammy Bender, did not require a reporter to file a Right to Know Law request, instead saying an email request was sufficient.
"There is simply no justification for the delay in this case, and that fact is highlighted by the quick responses you’ve seen from other counties," said Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association.
Bad faith? "There’s no question that this information is public, and the Office of Open Records made that crystal clear," she said. "This information is not controversial and it is not difficult to locate. The only question is why the county and courts haven’t worked together to provide access. The delay certainly raises questions of bad faith and there’s no doubt that many folks would have given up on access long ago."
Melewsky said the government has a legal duty to provide the public with financial information showing disbursement of public funds.
"The fact that they haven’t done so does not inspire public confidence or trust," she said.
Terry Mutchler, a former Associated Press reporter who was tasked by former Gov. Ed Rendell to create the state's Office of Open Records, and who served as its founding executive director for seven years, said the records are owned by the citizens.
"In three decades of transparency law work, this case is one of the most absurd situations I have encountered in Pennsylvania, or anywhere in the country for that matter," said Mutchler, who is now a media law attorney with Dilworth Paxson law firm in Philadelphia. "In a word, it's crazy."
"Citizens own these records, and taxpayers are footing the bill for these workers," she said. "To me, it's unconscionable that with such a basic record request … that the county is going to pile up legal bills — paid for by taxpayers — just to determine who is responsible for providing the records."
"True leadership in this scenario" would be for the county to provide the requested information, Mutchler said, adding "it would be a hallmark of open and honest government to do so."
Mutchler helped The York Dispatch in its appeal to OOR by submitting a petition for reconsideration.
David Martens, president of The York Dispatch Publishing Co., has also weighed in.
"Allison Blew's lack of understanding of Pennsylvania's Open Records law is baffling," he said. "Shouldn't 'know the law' be the first requirement listed on the job description for the Office of Prothonotary?"
Neither county solicitor Pokrifka nor York County President Commissioner Julie Wheeler responded to requests for comment.
What will records show? Former part-time York County Prothonotary Office clerk Jamie Moore said she suspects the reason York County is fighting the release of prothonotary employee records is because they'll show that a number of clerks quit in the months after elected Blew took office in January.
Moore is one of them. She said she resigned partially because she needed surgery, and partially because of Blew's management style.
"She's awful to work for, she really is," Moore said. "I enjoyed my job. I just didn't like her."
Prothonotary clerks who have been in the office for a decade or more aren't leaving county employment because they have pensions that are still accruing, according to Moore. But at least three clerks have transferred to other offices in the York County Judicial Center, and clerks with fewer years of service left the county entirely when they resigned, she said.
"Everybody was just miserable and on edge," Moore said, alleging it's because of Blew's management style. "When I gave my notice, I told her there's tension in the office you'd need a knife to cut through."
Office of Open Records: The York Dispatch appealed York County's refusals to release the requested information to Pennsylvania's Office of Open Records.
OOR appeals officer Joshua Young reviewed the case and dismissed the newspaper's request after concluding that the information falls under the judiciary's purview.
"Commonwealth Court has made clear that OOR lacks jurisdiction over the records of a judicial agency," Young wrote — but not because the information is shielded from public view.
"The information being requested, salaries and basic job information for agency employees, is clearly public," Young wrote in his OOR ruling. "(T)hat the Requester should be provided the requested information is not in dispute. The question is merely who is responsible for providing it. Unfortunately, this Final (OOR) Determination will not resolve that question."
Read the OOR's full decision here.
— Reach senior crime reporter Liz Evans Scolforo at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.