HARRISBURG - A Northeastern Pennsylvania woman wants to restore her dog's reputation. A man wants to ferret out corruption in his borough south of Pittsburgh. What do they have in common?
A recent court case makes it harder for them to look at government records.
In June, Debra Krysicki of White Haven, Pa., asked for a state record that would show who had filed a complaint about her 2-year-old boxer, Fritzie. The Department of Agriculture denied her request.
When she appealed, the state Office of Open Records dismissed her appeal outright.
Krysicki said the notice of dismissal was full of legal jargon she didn't understand.
"I tried to follow the time lines," the 61-year-old retired special-education teacher said. "I tried to answer the questions to satisfy them. They still were looking for something else."
She is in good company. Critics say a recent court decision makes it harder for the typical citizen to fight City Hall - or the state, or the local sewer authority - when it comes to obtaining government records.
Open-records advocates say the ruling has rendered the process so burdensome as to turn on its head the assumption that government agencies have the burden to prove why a record should be shielded from public view.
Terry Mutchler, who heads the state's Office of Open Records, called the April decision the "single biggest blow to open government in the commonwealth."
Mutchler said it means most citizens, unless they hire lawyers, have little recourse if government denies their requests for records.
The ruling in Commonwealth Court, which handles appeals of state agency rulings, stemmed from a request filed last year by a prisoner.
Alfonso Rizzuto of Scranton, in prison for forgery and receiving stolen property, asked for licensing records of a nurse whom he accused of "claiming to be a doctor at my sick call." The Department of Corrections denied his request in a nine-page letter replete with legal arguments. Rizzuto appealed to the Office of Open Records - the first stop for such appeals - arguing that the document should be public, period. He didn't elaborate.
That was enough for the Office of Open Records to decide to review his case.
But Department of Corrections lawyers argued that the office should not have even considered such a vaguely worded appeal. They said Rizzuto had not complied with the open-records law - he hadn't spelled out why the record should be public, and hadn't countered each argument the department had made for keeping it under wraps.
In April, a three-judge Commonwealth Court panel agreed. The judges said the law didn't require citizens to prove a record should be public - merely to "identify flaws in an agency's decision to deny a request."
The court opined that such a requirement isn't "particularly onerous" even for those who don't have a lawyer.
Mutchler, who has run the Office of Open Records since its 2009 launch, disagrees. She said the judges followed the letter of the state's new open-records law but could have "left a little bit more breathing room for the spirit of the law."
Since the decision was handed down, her office has dismissed 30 percent of citizens' appeals. (Before the ruling, she said, the office did not track the number because it was not an issue.)
"A citizen almost has to be a lawyer [now] to have a case reviewed by us," Mutchler said. "If they don't have the necessary requirements to get in the door, we can't take the case."
The Office of Open Records was created by Pennsylvania's new and expanded open-records law. In essence, that law declared all state and local government records public unless specifically exempted. It was a vast change from the previous Right to Know Act, written in 1957, which narrowly defined what constituted a public record.
The new law also shifted the burden onto government agencies to demonstrate why records should not be public. Previously, the burden was on citizens.
Theron Perez, the Department of Corrections lawyer in the case, said the April ruling rendered the open-records law "much more efficient."
If citizens filing appeals do not give detailed explanations, Perez said, then "we don't know why they think we're wrong," and the government cannot respond to their concerns.
"Basically, all this decision means is that when someone files an appeal, they need to look at the denial letter, they need to read it, and, if they disagree with what the agency has said, they need to explain why."
Private lawyers who handle right-to-know cases foresee headaches only lawyers can cure. Paul Toner, who practices in Media, predicted difficulties in getting access to some records that had previously been deemed public.
"I think the [court ruling] significantly restricts the availability of public information," Toner said. "The vast majority of individuals who successfully obtain information from this point forward are going to need to rely on the advice of counsel."
Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware), one of the architects of the new law, said he was working to amend it but had not decided whether to address this issue. He said he first needed to understand its practical impact.
Absent a revision of the law, Harrisburg lawyer Craig J. Staudenmaier, who has handled open-records cases, said he would like to see a mechanism set up to help guide citizens through the legal maze. A how-to clinic, perhaps, or a hotline.
Krysicki, the dog owner, wishes she could have called such a hotline. All she wanted, she said, was to find out who had complained so she could clear Fritzie's name.
"It was so time-consuming with no satisfaction," Krysicki said. "It's just a process that wants to wear you down, so you give up."
Leonard Dean, of Marianna in Western Pennsylvania, has filed many a right-to-know request to keep his borough's government in check. He knows the rules. Nonetheless, he had an appeal dismissed in June.
To Dean, the recent court ruling looks like little more than a political move to keep government records private.
Why bother having an Office of Open Records, he argued, "when you don't want them to do anything? It doesn't make any sense."