EDITORIAL: Pa.'s Right to Know Law fails citizens

The Dispatch Editorial Board
A postal vehicle passes the York County Prison Friday, March 15, 2019. The ACLU of Pennsylvania has alleged that York County Prison is violating inmates' rights with its mail policy. Bill Kalina photo

Pennsylvania's Right-to-Know Law is deeply flawed, even after 2009's overhaul. And it will remain that way until state lawmakers challenge law enforcement special interests that weaponize fear to dodge public accountability.

That's the ultimate takeaway from a May 9 court ruling in favor of York County over The Dispatch. 

Judge Richard K. Renn put to rest a protracted legal battle between the county and this newspaper over access to a 2017 report created by the state Department of Corrections after county officials requested an unusual, wide-ranging inspection of the local lock-up.

The judge noted the DOC looked at all "aspects of prison operations to uncover deficiencies therein." We were particularly interested in any financial information in the report, considering overtime costs at the prison had doubled between 2013 and 2017. 

In 2013 the county paid $3.4 million for 96,000 hours of overtime at the prison, and by 2017 it shelled out $6.5 million for more than 150,000 overtime hours. In June 2017 alone, York County Prison employees worked more than 21,000 hours of overtime, costing the county more than $790,000.

For months, the county refused to release the DOC report, citing security concerns. Local officials refused to budge even when we acknowledged the possibility of legitimate safety issues and narrowed our request to only the portions of the report dealing with finances. 

We believe there must be a balance between such concerns and the public's right to know — and in this case the county didn’t give enough weight to taxpayers' interests. 

The prison is among York County's largest expenses. More than $63 million in taxpayer cash will be spent operating the jail this year alone.

Its contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is among the largest on the eastern seaboard and of obvious public interest.

Yet, based on Renn's conclusion, taxpayers and citizens have no right to see what the experts thought of the county’s financial management of the prison.

Why did overtime costs spike? Was it because of poor management, or something else? If it was the former, who was responsible? Are those people still in the county’s employ? Should someone be fired — or voted out of office? How was the problem corrected and what steps were taken to prevent a recurrence?

Those are all reasonable questions for which we still don't have answers.

Make no mistake, the judge's ruling isn't at issue here. It's Pennsylvania's Right to Know Law that's fundamentally broken, thanks to the Legislature's continued capitulation to law enforcement.

The prison report is packed with detailed financial information about staffing levels, salaries and overtime spending, Renn acknowledged in his ruling. But it's so commingled with operational details that the release of even a redacted version would constitute a security risk, he wrote, while accepting the county's primary argument. 


Renn's ruling hinged on two portions state's Right-to-Know Law that exempt the disclosure of information that "would be reasonably likely to jeopardize or threaten public safety or preparedness" and produce a "reasonable likelihood of endangering the safety or the physical security of a building ..."

It's the same exact excuse county officials cited in their refusal to release the jail's new legal mail policy even after the state Department of Corrections made public its version.

The "safety and security" defense secrecy is as old as representative government itself. Federal officials used it to defend spying on Americans for decades after 9-11, a program with no real value, officials recently admitted.

In 2009, Pennsylvania lawmakers exempted footage from police dashboard cameras from the RTK law. Body camera footage — originally pitched as necessary tools of transparency and oversight — are all but impossible to see in Pennsylvania, thanks to sweeping exemptions inserted to keep police lobbyists happy.

Like it or not, police officers are public officials, police cruisers are public vehicles and county jails are public facilities. And yet, lawmakers continually cave to pressure and end-run the public's right-to-know all under the guise of "security" and "ongoing investigations." 

The arrest and confinement of citizens and immigrants are among a free society's most weighty governmental endeavors, meriting constant scrutiny from an informed public — especially considering Pennsylvania has the fifth largest population of incarcerated people in the U.S. and highest incarceration rate in the Northeast, according to the ACLU.

As it stands, Pennsylvania's Right-to-Know Law is designed to instead ensure we all remain oblivious in such cases. 

It’s time for lawmakers to change that.