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Let the sun shine in

Judging by the volume of requests for information alone, the year-old update of Pennsylvania's open-records law has helped to better inform the public about their tax dollars at work.

At many large state-government offices, Right to Know Law requests doubled since the law took effect on Jan. 1.
At the state Office of Open Records, a staff of attorneys and aides is "just overwhelmed" by the hundreds of appeals for help in gaining access to data, says executive director Terry Mutchler.

Reporters from newspapers, the Associated Press, and other news organizations also found in a recent survey that far fewer requests for data were being denied than in previous years.

Of course, there still are bureaucrats doing their best apparatchik imitation. They blow the legal deadlines for responding to requests for records. They improperly second-guess the motives behind a particular information request. Many county and local governments still haven't met the simple requirement to post online instructions for citizens to make requests for information.

But for a state that once was regarded as having among the worst open-records law, all of the activity around better access to information makes for a refreshing change.

On its face, the law as amended last year opened up entirely new areas of state and local government and public school districts. For one thing, the statute was modernized to account for officials' use of e-mail. But the most critical change was to establish that all government records are presumed to be public unless specifically covered by one of about 30 exceptions.

Now, a national open-records advocacy group — the National Freedom of Information Coalition — ranks the state's open-records law in the top third nationally.

One year isn't much time to evaluate the long-term prospects for fostering government openness. Indeed, the learning curve on the part of public officials and government staffers is longer than that — as evidenced by the vast number of disputes over what records can be released.

Certainly, Mutchler's office plays a key role in raising public awareness. That's a role it can fulfill only if the Office of Open Records is assured adequate staff and other resources.

Nationally, there's a deep current of distrust about government dealings — as seen during the summer's "tea party" demonstrations. And in Harrisburg, the political machinations make it seem as though the public's business still takes place in the proverbial smoke-filled backroom.

It's often said that sunlight is the best disinfectant for government corruption. Similarly, the effort to foster and further improve Pennsylvanians' access to public records should help restore trust in those officials who serve the public honestly.