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EDITORIAL: Time, again, to revise open records law
Earlier this year, reporters from The York Dispatch joined more than 100 journalists from 21 newspapers to test how well government agencies are complying with Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law.
Compared to the first such survey in 2005 — like this one, coordinated by The Associated Press — the results are encouraging.
In a series of articles this week detailing the findings, the AP noted that 11 years ago even basic requests were denied outright or treated with suspicion by the government employees who held the records.
The common theme then was, “Why do you want to know?”
How about for the simple reason that the records belong to the residents, created by public officials and employees acting on their behalf, paid for with their tax dollars?
But that was before a 2008 rewrite of Pennsylvania’s open records law, which was built on the foundation that all government records are presumed to be public and the onus is on a government agency to show why a request should not be honored.
In this third, most recent survey, the participating journalists said “government employees were generally quite accommodating,” the AP reported.
Government employees were quick to respond to the requests, even if they didn’t apply the Right-to-Law uniformly and sometimes produced heavily redacted documents when they did comply.
“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, who ran the state Office of Open Records from its creation in 2008 until last year.
Again, this is encouraging — but let’s keep it in perspective.
When the first AP open records survey was done in 2005, the news service pointed out, Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law was widely considered among the weakest in the country.
We would hope that nearly a dozen years and a massive overhaul of the law would produce some positive results.
Mutchler acknowledges further changes are needed, such as addressing the various ways government agencies use exceptions to the law to keep information secret.
For example, if one school district refuses to release any information about firings and demotions while another turns over everything, including a termination letter, one of them is interpreting the Right--to Know Law incorrectly.
Or, maybe they know exactly what they're doing and simply don't care.
Some government agencies treat requests for public records as a “game of chicken,” former (Allentown) Morning Call editor and publisher David M. Erdman told the AP, forcing newspapers into expensive court battles to gain access.
The lawyers have an incentive to deny requests and let the cases play out in court — their legal fees (paid by you, the taxpayers, who actually own the records).
“With that kind of dynamic, it's easy to see how bureaucrats have perverted the original intent of the Right-to-Know Law," Erdman said.
Even the main sponsor of the 2008 Right-to-Know Law overhaul — former state Senate Republican leader Dominic Pileggi — said the exceptions are overused, and the law needs to be changed again.
Pileggi sponsored a bill to revamp the open records law, and it was approved by the Senate a year ago. It died when the two-year session ended Wednesday, but the State Government Committee chairman, Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Butler, said he expects a new proposal to be introduced early next year.
We hope that's the case and that lawmakers can agree on common-sense ways to better provide access to public documents — without watering down the basic premise of the law:
The public owns these records, and, barring a compelling reason, we should be able to easily inspect them.