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Statewide audit: 5 Daily News reporters find progress, but a few roadblocks

FOUR YEARS AGO, when Christina Perrone began showing up at Radnor Township meetings asking about municipal spending, authorities in the Delaware County suburb treated her like an unwelcome pest.

FOUR YEARS AGO, when Christina Perrone began showing up at Radnor Township meetings asking about municipal spending, authorities in the Delaware County suburb treated her like an unwelcome pest.

They took months answering Perrone's requests for expense-account records. When she took her complaints to the township's public meetings, they gave her condescending lectures on budget issues - and started an audit of her municipal tax return. (Turned out, the township owed her $73.)

"We have a home-rule charter that says in no uncertain terms, citizens are allowed to see any financial records of the township," Perrone said. "But I asked for easy stuff, like credit-card information, and right out of the box I was denied. . . . "

Perrone, a businesswoman, wife and mother, didn't have the time or money to file a lawsuit. But through tips she received in anonymous letters, she forced the township managers to confirm various abuses - a $1,200 expenditure to provide back rubs for township managers, for instance, and a whitewater-raft trip during which township employees practiced "team-building."

When Pennsylvania's new Right-to-Know Law took effect last January, Perrone and another local activist, Lamar "Chip" Layfield, had some bigger requests.

They asked for a copy of the contract with the township manager, Dave Bashore, and discovered he'd been granted an interest-free $175,000 loan, to be forgiven if he held the job 12 years.

Over several years, Bashore had distributed hundreds of thousands of dollars in bonuses - "special lump-sum payments" - to township employees, including $151,500 for himself, without public knowledge or votes by the township commissioners.

Within weeks, Bashore was forced to resign - the biggest casualty so far of the state's new public-records law.

"The law was finally on our side, to increase transparency," Perrone told a reporter.

Most government agencies in Southeastern Pennsylvania are adjusting to the new public-records law without such dramatic consequences.

Participating in a statewide audit organized by the Associated Press, five Daily News reporters approached five government agencies in Philadelphia and the suburbs. They tried to behave as ordinary citizens, not as reporters.

In most cases, the government agencies provided the information requested.

But it took persistence - especially at the Philadelphia Housing Authority, where three requests to look at an employee's job application were dismissed or ignored. The document was released only after the requester identified himself as a newspaper reporter.

Likewise, the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office took more than a month responding to a request for three recent grant applications. Only when a reporter identified himself as representing the Daily News did the agency seem to take the request seriously - and, more than two months later, the D.A.'s office still hasn't provided the material requested.

By contrast, the Philadelphia School District produced a copy of the superintendent's contract three days after receiving a handwritten request. The school district's open-records officer did not seek identification or an explanation from the person who asked for the record.

At the East Lansdowne Police Department, Chief John Zimath patiently described four calls handled by the department over a 24-hour period. He said the department could provide written copies of each incident report, but they would cost $15 each and would have to be edited to remove personal information.

A request for Philadelphia's 9-1-1 response logs was more problematic. A reporter spent hours on fruitless phone calls and e-mails, before a Police Department spokesman took the request seriously and reported that it would cost $100 in computer-programming fees.

Staff writers William Bender, Dave Davies, Julia Shaw and St. John Barned-Smith contributed to this report.