HARRISBURG - A wealth of information about the actions and decisions of Pennsylvania public officials has been pried loose in the year since a broad expansion of the state's Right-to-Know Law took effect.
There are signs, including a recent spot check of government agencies, that the state is shedding its long-standing reputation as a public-access backwater.
Whole categories of records that previously were difficult and sometimes impossible to obtain are being exposed to public scrutiny - from internal e-mails and once-secret details in personnel files to 9-1-1 call logs and records in the hands of government contractors.
"It is night and day from the old law," said Mary Catherine Roper, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer in Philadelphia who has been involved in cases this year seeking access to police and prison records. "This is a huge step forward for openness and accountability in government."
The old law guaranteed access only to specific categories of records, where the new law presumes that all records are public, beyond a list of 30 exceptions.
And a new agency, the independent Office of Open Records, has been putting to use its power to issue binding decisions.
Requests for records have surged since the law took effect in January, with many large state-government departments reporting that the number of Right-to-Know Law requests submitted to their offices has doubled.
Through November, agencies under Gov. Rendell fielded 4,994 Right-to-Know requests for the year - an average of nearly 14 a day - and granted about 80 percent of them, at least in part. Last year, the Corrections Department received 397 requests; its 2009 total through November was nearly 900, the most of any agency.
To measure the new law's impact, dozens of Pennsylvania news organizations recently conducted a freedom-of-information audit, coordinated by the Associated Press.
Over two days in October, auditors lodged 274 requests for five types of records: grant applications, 9-1-1 logs, police blotters, school-superintendent contracts and job applications or resumes of public employees. They eventually obtained full access in 208 cases, and partial access in 24 others.
In other words, requesters were given access to the information they sought about 85 percent of the time - a clear improvement over similar surveys in 2005 and 1999, in which the failure rate in both years was about 30 percent.
However, the three surveys do not allow a precise comparison, because each employed different methods, different records were sought and they were conducted under different versions of the Right-to-Know Law, which was amended in 2002 and again last year.
Amid the evidence of progress - and despite hundreds of training sessions to teach public employees about their new legal obligations - attitudes and practices at some government agencies have not changed.
In the latest audit, some public officials violated the strict time limits that the law sets for responses, some ignored requests altogether and others exhibited suspicion or even hostility.
Still, many of them followed the law precisely and bent over backward to be helpful.
"It doesn't take a genius to game this law, it doesn't take a genius to deny information under this law," said Terry Mutchler, executive director of the state's Office of Open Records. "But we have also seen a lot of agencies absolutely determined to do the right thing."
The new law requires that government Web sites post information for people who want to make right-to-know requests. But only 27 of the 67 counties fully complied with the requirements, and 16 ignored them altogether, according to a survey completed in early December by the Pennsylvania Freedom of Information Coalition.
More changes to the law may be on the way.
Some of the most impressive examples of how it has been used to shed new light on government actions and make officials more accountable to the public have come from Pennsylvania newspapers, which lobbied heavily for the new law, both in print and in the halls of the Capitol.
A small selection:
* The Erie Times-News obtained disciplinary records of a veteran school district employee during her campaign for school board, and were able to review e-mails that helped it sort out a dispute over compensatory time off in which a county public safety director had been fired.
* The Morning Call of Allentown reported that the Bethlehem Area School District lost millions of dollars on "swaps," a complex financial instrument. As a result of those losses, taxes are going up and programs are being cut.
* The Wilkes-Barre Times-Leader turned to the law's new appeals procedure after the Luzerne County Convention Center Authority blacked out the dollar figures of a contract to manage the Wachovia Arena. The paper found that the deal with a private business was worth at least $2 million.
* The York Dispatch reported wide disparities in how often county commissioners were showing up at the office, based on electronic keycard "swipes." One recorded at least one swipe every workday over a 12-month period, while the others did not swipe in on dozens of workdays.
Everyday people are also using the new law and the ability, through the Office of Open Records, to challenge denials without the expensive advice of a lawyer.
Larry Fischer, 65, a retired Air Force officer from Newtown Square, Delaware County, encountered resistance when he filed 15 requests about financial practices in a month with his township.
Newtown Township turned him down, calling his requests "incessant" and politically motivated, because he was running for township auditor.
The Office of Open Records not only ruled that Fischer had a right to see redacted versions of the records but scolded the township about producing public records no matter the requester's motives.
"I am very much a fan," said Fischer, who lost the election. "We would be really up a creek without a paddle in Newtown Township without this Right-to-Know Law."
The Office of Open Records, with a $1.2 million budget and a staff of just six lawyers and four non-lawyers, has already handled more than 1,080 access disputes - plus about 4,500 phone and e-mail inquiries.