A recent editorial, “From sunlight into darkness” dated September 26th, regarding proposed changes to Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law completely missed the mark.
The new Right-to-Know Law, enacted in 2008, has given Pennsylvania citizens access to many new government records that they would never have seen before the new law was enacted. While it may not be perfect, it was crafted with the support and input of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania (CCAP), the Pennsylvania Association of Township Supervisors (PSATS) and the Pennsylvania School Boards Association (PSBA).
In addition to making even more government records available for public review and improving the appeals process for requesters when government agencies deny records, Senate Bill 444 will enable local governments throughout Bradford, Lycoming, Sullivan, Susquehanna and Union counties to require pre-payment if record duplication costs are expected to exceed $50, rather than the $100 threshold in current law. This means requesters will know sooner if a request is going to be more expensive than anticipated and will have an opportunity to revise it if they wish, while local government agencies will not be left holding the bag after compiling an extensive response if the requester decides not to pay.
The bill creates a new fee structure for commercial requests, allowing our local governments to better recoup the costs of responding to these types of requests. Senate Bill 444 further protects both agency and individual information which should be private by, for example, clarifying that an agency’s bank account numbers, bank routing numbers, credit card numbers and passwords are not public, along with tax forms citizens have filed with the state or federal government.
SB 444 also gives the Office of Open Records new tools to manage its caseload efficiently, including more power to hold hearings and review records in-camera. It establishes that the OOR is an independent agency. It ensures that the OOR can participate in appeals of its decision. Those are also monumental steps forward to benefit requesters who are denied access.
Anytime government agencies – including economic development authorities and industrial development authorities – contract with an outside entity, SB 444 ensures public access to “the contract and any public records of the agency relating to the contract.” That’s a wide range of records, as it should be.
Changes to the “deliberate process exemption” will actually expand access to records by clarifying that materials presented to a board for public deliberation are available to the public even if no vote occurs at the meeting.
Finally, OOR is a quasi-judicial agency. The requirement that it not comment on pending proceedings is intended to protect the integrity of the process. No one expects a judge to comment on an ongoing case. That principle applies equally to the OOR.
As a Senator, my primary focus is always on the interests of taxpayers and giving our local governments tools to deal with these kind of requests. Senate Bill 444 makes a good law better, and I am pleased to support it. I encourage the House to take it up and pass it before the current legislative session comes to a close.
Senator Gene Yaw (R-23)