Eight months later, York County hasn't released all public information sought by York Dispatch
A legal battle between The York Dispatch and York County for information that the state’s Office of Open Records has said is clearly a public record is now in its eighth month, with no end in sight.
And although the county released most of the requested information last month, there’s still information it refuses to make public — specifically, the start and end dates of employment for all employees in the York County Prothonotary’s Office since January 2020.
“My docket covers the entire state of Pennsylvania, and I have right-to-know cases and court-access cases,” said Paula Knudsen Burke, local legal-initiative attorney for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “(This) case is perhaps the most offensive because the information that the newspaper is seeking is so basic.
“It confounds me that the County of York won’t provide this information and has delayed for an incomprehensible amount of time,” she said.
The national nonprofit RCFP and Knudsen Burke are representing The York Dispatch at no cost. The attorney said she cites the Dispatch’s battle for basic employee records as an example of why Pennsylvania still struggles with public access to government information.
Sunshine Week: “For Sunshine Week in particular, it’s a good case to highlight,” she said. “But we have much more work to do.”
Sunshine week, which this year is March 14-20, is a national initiative to educate the public about the importance of open government and the dangers of excessive and unnecessary secrecy.
Katie Townsend, RCFP’s legal director, said the organization hopes supporting journalists fighting for access to public information will move Pennsylvania’s open-records law toward more transparency. The law can only be effective if it’s adhered to and enforced, she said.
“Cases like this one are exactly why the Reporters Committee launched the Local Legal Initiative to help ensure that journalists and news organizations have the direct legal support that’s too often needed to push back when government officials deny access to public records that the law is clear should be made available,” Townsend said.
Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, said the law guarantees access to the kind of information being sought by the Dispatch “because the public has the right to know who is working on their behalf, how much they are being paid, their job duties and how long they have been public servants.”
The same information for nearly all state employees is “readily available” online at the PennWATCH website, she said, calling it unjustifiable that York County hasn’t released all the information requested.
The fight: The York Dispatch first requested basic information about prothonotary office employees — names, pay rates, job titles and dates of hire — in late July.
The newspaper 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 maintained it was up to the judiciary to release those records, not the county. But York County District Court Administrator Paul Crouse and then-President Judge Joseph C. Adams repeatedly said the judiciary doesn't keep those records — the county does.
The York Dispatch appealed to Pennsylvania’s Office of Open Records, where appeals officer Joshua Young reviewed the case and dismissed the newspaper's request — but not because the information isn’t public, he said.
"Commonwealth Court has made clear that OOR lacks jurisdiction over the records of a judicial agency," Young wrote in his OOR ruling. "The information being requested, salaries and basic job information for agency employees, is clearly public. … (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."
The York Dispatch, through Knudsen Burke, appealed the decision in York County Court, where Common Pleas Judge Clyde W. Vedder ruled against the newspaper on Jan. 25.
What York judge said: However, the judge directed that York County “immediately and without delay, take all steps necessary to refer the request to the Records Manager for review and determination whether the documents should be released consistent with (the judge’s written) opinion."
On Feb. 8, Crouse sent an email to Pokrifka stating the prothonotary’s office had no designated records manager, so the judge’s task fell to him.
Crouse noted that the information being sought is “presumably” in the employees’ personnel files, which he said aren’t in the possession of the court, meaning the judiciary. Rather, he said, they are “in the possession, control and supervision of the county.”
Therefore, Crouse wrote, “I will treat this as a request for the court to authorize the county to release the information,” adding that “I have not been presented with any authority for the proposition that I can cause or compel the county to actually release or withhold the information.”
Crouse authorized the release of the requested information except for the hire dates and employment end dates of all people who worked in the office since Allison Blew became county prothonotary in January 2020.
Working environment? The dates of hire and termination, resignation or retirement are critical to The York Dispatch’s investigation into the working environment in the prothonotary's office.
In November, former part-time York County prothonotary clerk Jamie Moore said she believes a number of clerks had quit in the months after Blew took office in January 2020, herself included.
"Everybody was just miserable and on edge," Moore said. "When I gave my notice, I told her there's tension in the office you'd need a knife to cut through.”
Blew didn’t return messages seeking comment on Friday.
To see how other counties would respond, The York Dispatch on Nov. 6 requested the same information about prothonotary's office employees from Adams, Dauphin and Lancaster counties.
Adams County released all the information requested that day.
Request form not needed: About three business days after the request was made, Lancaster County's open-records officer provided the sought-after information in its entirety. That county's open-records officer, Tammy Bender, did not require a Right to Know Law request be filed, instead saying an email request was sufficient.
Dauphin County provided all the information sought on Nov. 19, less than two weeks after the request was made.
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.
Mutchler, who is now a media law attorney with Dilworth Paxson law firm in Philadelphia, has joined forces with The York Dispatch and Knudsen Burke in the newspaper’s appeal to Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court.
There’s also a separate appeal of Vedder’s decision that's been submitted to current York County President Judge Maria Musti Cook.
“This is one of the most taxpayer money-wasting, infuriating cases that has come across my desk,” Mutchler said. “Can we please take a deep breath and recognize that there is not a more basic Right to Know Law request than the one The York Dispatch has filed?”
Law is for citizens: She said citizens need to understand that public-information laws aren’t about the media, or about someone being nosy. Rather, the laws allow citizens to scrutinize the actions of their public officials.
“This has real implications, because the next time someone wants to know the same information, what’s going to happen?” Mutchler asked.
She described the Dispatch’s fight as being “about the depths and the lengths that citizens have to go to get information they own, whether they’re in York, Pennsylvania, or in Yakima, Washington.”
Mutchler said she’s been involved in some manner with perhaps 30,000 public-information cases and has seen firsthand how important they are in holding agencies accountable.
From a school district that was serving expired food to children, to people who were fired from government jobs but who remained on the payroll for several months afterward, to a citizen who was wrongly told he was financially responsible for a broken sewer line, it was open-records laws that rectified those injustices, she said.
The worst of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties for transparency in Mutchler’s experience are York and Monroe counties, she said.
'None of your business': She recalled a 2009 case in which a requester sought a York County employee’s salary and was denied several times before eventually prevailing. The York County solicitor at the time had handwritten in the margins of a filing, “None of your business,” Mutchler recalled.
“I guarantee that this (York Dispatch) case will be one I talk about for the rest of my career,” she predicted. “The simple solution is for someone in leadership in York County to say that the citizens deserve better here.”
Knudsen Burke said sometimes the fight to obtain clearly public information “feels like rolling this monumental stone uphill.”
That’s because even though in 2008 the legal burden in Pennsylvania changed from petitioners having to prove information was public, to the government proving it’s not, “that presumption of access hasn’t been embraced by some public officials.”
— Reach senior crime reporter Liz Evans Scolforo at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.