Public records being turned over, but some with heavy edits

The Associated Press

EDITOR’S NOTE — This is the first of four parts on a survey of how local government agencies and school districts in Pennsylvania are responding to requests for public records under the state Right-to-Know Law.

FILE – This Dec. 10, 2008, file photo shows file boxes on shelves in the Pennsylvania State Records Center in Harrisburg, Pa. Government offices across Pennsylvania didn't apply the state's Right-to-Know Law uniformly, and sometimes scrubbed critical details from records requests, according to a May 2016 survey conducted by more than 100 employees of 21 newspapers. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)

HARRISBURG — Government offices across Pennsylvania didn’t apply the state’s Right-to-Know Law uniformly and sometimes scrubbed critical details from requested records, according to a survey conducted by more than 100 employees of 21 newspapers.

The officials, however, were quick to respond to most requests, a sign of improved compliance with the law that was revised eight years ago.

Among the survey’s findings:

• Requests for documents showing when a government employee had been fired or demoted met with starkly different responses; some agencies willingly turned over severance agreements, others flatly rejected doing so.

• Many government agencies blacked out large portions of documents that were sought to show how much they are paying outside lawyers to deny access to some public records.

• When police dash-cam or body camera videos were sought, only a small percentage were turned over, and when they were, key portions were largely edited out.

• School districts nearly universally turned over lists of all the vehicles they own, inarguably a public record.

The survey, conducted in May, was the third such review by state newspapers and coordinated by The Associated Press over the past 11 years. It was developed by The Associated Press in Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Society of News Editors, the Pennsylvania Associated Press Managing Editors and the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association.

A 2005 survey found even basic records requests being treated with suspicion or denied outright. A second audit in 2009, following an overhaul of the law, suggested access had improved. In this year’s survey, most requests generated a response within five days, evidence that basic requirements of the law are generally being followed.

“The citizens of the commonwealth now have proof that the money and effort spent toward prying open government cabinets — for records the citizens own — actually proved to be successful,” said Terry Mutchler, a Philadelphia attorney who was in charge of the state Office of Open Records from its creation in 2008 until last year.

FILE – In this Dec. 3, 2008, file photo, Terry Mutchler, then executive director for Pennsylvania's Office of Open Records, is interviewed in Harrisburg, Pa. Government offices across Pennsylvania didn't apply the state's Right-to-Know Law uniformly, according to a May 2016 survey by 21 newspapers. Mutchler said she regularly heard from government officials who wanted to release records, but their lawyers advised them not to. Mutchler, now a Philadelphia-based attorney, said she believes lawyers need better training. (AP Photo/Jason Minick, File)

At the same time, she said, further changes are needed. Conflicting language in state laws, concerns about lawyer-client privilege and variations in how agencies use their discretion to withhold records were reflected in the results in the new survey.

About half of the 526 requests were resolved this year when agencies determined they had no such records. Of the remaining 259, nearly 200 resulted in a record being handed over. The remainder were rejected, ignored or otherwise failed to lead to records being turned over.

Police dash camera footage was by far the hardest record to obtain, as police agencies in 10 of 25 requests cited state laws that keep criminal investigative records confidential. Ten said their videos had been erased, had been turned over to another agency or never existed. Five departments agreed to disclose selected portions, but only one captured the heart of the incident, showing a vehicle crashing into a tree at the end of a police chase.

After weeding out agencies that didn’t have any of the requested records, about two-thirds of the requests for legal bills were provided, and about the same share of the requests for records of firings or demotions were provided, although key details were often missing or blacked out.

Legal bills are generally public but can contain information that agencies might withhold.

Surveyors sought severance agreements and any other records about the discharge or demotion of public employees last year. The 2008 revision of the Right-to-Know Law specified that schools and governments did not have to turn over personnel records regarding demotion or discharge, unless they involved the “final action of an agency.”

That provision was the subject of a divided 2012 Commonwealth Court ruling upholding the decision by Wilkinsburg borough to give a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter a copy of a termination letter that redacted portions explaining why a worker had been fired.

Cambria County’s open records officer wrote that she would not release any documents related to discharge or demotion. She called the agreements “the end result of noncriminal investigations” and said they were “intended to be confidential between the employee and employer.” She said disclosure would make it harder for the county to resolve employment disputes outside of litigation.

Bangor Area School District turned over severance agreements but not other communications memorializing demotion or discharge decisions. Erie City listed the names of 22 people and the dates they were terminated.

But in other cases, agencies and districts did provide details about firings, including a termination letter from Westmoreland County Community College that told an employee his work did not meet their standards. Lancaster City disclosed that a receptionist was fired after three warnings and two suspensions, and a water plant operator was dismissed after being absent for the previous 16 days.

Surveyors said government employees were generally quite accommodating.

When a reporter from The (Allentown) Morning Call asked Emmaus borough for its outside legal bills on Right-to-Know Law denials, the borough manager promised to work on it and called back four days later. Emmaus, population 11,000, had paid a law firm $224 to review a Right-to-Know Law request that ended up being partly denied.