State report suggests improvements for Right-to-Know Law
As the state's Right-to-Know Law nears a decade on the books, a joint House-Senate committee compiled a lengthy report looking into the law's effectiveness and costs.
The Legislative Budget and Finance Committee released its report in conjunction with the state's Office of Open Records in late February detailing results and conclusions from its survey of nearly 1,100 open records officers during 2016.
The law, which went into effect in 2009, creates a process for the public to request records from public agencies that requires the agency to provide the requested records in a timely manner or deny the response while proving the record is not subject to public release.
Previous open record laws in the state put the burden of proof on the requester to explain why a record is subject to public release.
This week — March 11-17 — is "Sunshine Week," a national collaborative of various media entities promoting the importance of open government and freedom of information.
Pennsylvania primary public access laws are the Right-to-Know Law and the Sunshine Act, which require public agencies to hold public meetings any time they take official action.
Erik Arneson, executive director of the state's Office of Open Records, said his main takeaway from the committee's report is that the law is working well for those who file open records requests and the agencies that must respond to them.
Costs varied widely among survey participants, according to the report, but more than half of the agencies reported spending less than $500 per year with an average cost of $61 per request.
"We heard a lot of concerns in the early years (of the law) on the potential burden (on agencies," Arneson said, "but I think (this report) shows, with few isolated exceptions, that there's no burden."
The law does not specify what would make a request overly burdensome, though several agencies responded in the survey that they considered requests burdensome for reasons including low staff levels and length of time it took to fulfill a request.
Glenn Smith, York County's solicitor and open records officer, said he doesn't believe he's ever taken the stance that a request is overly burdensome.
"I believe we have an obligation to do our best to fulfill every request," Smith said.
One of the most common factors in requests deemed overly burdensome by agencies is that they were submitted for commercial purposes, often from out of state.
Nearly 35 percent of open records requests were for commercial purposes, according to the survey.
Smith said more than half of the requests he sees are commercial, often asking for data regarding employee compensation or what a successful bidder submitted to receive a contract with the county.
He said he personally believes agencies should be allowed to charge more for commercial requests because the purpose of the law was to allow the public to keep an eye on their officials, but some companies are using it to profit.
The committee makes several recommendations in its report for the General Assembly to improve the law, and one is to establish reasonable hourly fees that agencies can charge to fulfill commercial requests.
Arneson agreed that the issue of charging those requesting documents for commercial purposes needs to be addressed, and he said legislation has already been proposed that would establish additional costs for those seeking to sell or make a profit off a record, excluding the media.
Those making the request would need to certify that it is for commercial purposes and be subject to perjury charges if they intentionally lie, Arneson said.
The report also suggests improvements to the Office of Open Records, including the creation of a database of contact information for agencies' open records officers and developing more training materials for agencies and requesters.
Arneson said his office is already actively working on both suggestions, planning to unveil a searchable database of open records officers on its website by June and using its new office in Harrisburg to create training webinars.
On the training side, Arneson said the most common mistake he sees with submitted requests is when they are overly broad, asking for more records than they actually want, and the most common mistake on the agency side is not working with people filing requests thoroughly enough to determine the record they're actually seeking.
"Oftentimes, a simple phone call or email could significantly narrow a request and make life easier for both parties," he said.
Another common mistake he sees is that some agencies have developed a habit of forwarding every request to their solicitor, which can make the process more costly, Arneson said.
"No offense to solicitors, but they're not needed on the vast majority of requests," he said. "That goes back to the training issue."
— Reach David Weissman at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @DispatchDavid.