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Pa. exercises Right-to-Know

Requests for public information are up sharply since a new law took effect in January.

Larry Fischer, 65, a retired Air Force officer from Newtown Square, prevailed in his quest to get municipal information from Newtown Township. "We would be really up a creek without a paddle in Newtown Township without this Right-to-Know Law," Fischer said.
Larry Fischer, 65, a retired Air Force officer from Newtown Square, prevailed in his quest to get municipal information from Newtown Township. "We would be really up a creek without a paddle in Newtown Township without this Right-to-Know Law," Fischer said.Read moreMATT ROURKE / Associated Press

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 911 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."

While the old law guaranteed access only to specific categories of records, 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 using 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 had 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, 911 logs, police blotters, school superintendent contracts, and job applications or resumes of public employees. They obtained full access in 208 cases, and partial access in 24.

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.

But the three surveys do not allow a precise comparison, because each employed different methods and sought different records, 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 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. Philadelphia and its four suburban counties are in compliance.

More changes to the law may be on the way.

Several people involved with the law's implementation - including Mutchler - say it can be improved, and a state Senate leader who was prime sponsor of the new law said the legislature might begin debating the topic as early as spring.

"We always expected that, after a period of a year or two, there would be a need to revisit the law and tailor some of the provisions to address questions that came up," said Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware).

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.

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, encountered resistance when he filed 15 requests about financial practices in a single month with Newtown Township.

The 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 also 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 nonlawyers, has already handled more than 1,080 access disputes - plus about 4,500 phone and e-mail inquiries.

Along the way it has earned widespread praise for its professionalism and evenhandedness. But it has been stretched so thin that it has yet to hold a hearing, relying instead on the written record to make rulings.

Mutchler said there are undoubtedly people who abuse the law, such as the man who filed more than 250 Right-to-Know Law requests over just a few months.

"You have citizens who don't trust their government officials and are convinced their government's lying to them in every instance no matter what," she said. "And you have public bodies that don't like the public."

There was the Shamokin prisoner who used the law to find out how often he was entitled to fresh underwear and socks, one of more than 500 Right-to-Know Law requests state inmates have filed this year. An author sought files regarding the 1948 firing of a Shippensburg police officer. And a Tobyhanna woman asked the state Education Department to produce documentation about the number of books a third grader had read during an elementary school book drive.

But in York Township, just outside York, the government Web site's listing of the 160 or so requests filed this year by more than 70 people show the law's reach.

People there have obtained development plans, bond spreadsheets, aerial photos, building permits, sign-permit applications, tax information, a garbage contract, payroll records, and official e-mails.

One woman even got her hands on a list of licensed plumbers. It cost her just $1.25.

Provisions of the 2009 Law

SOURCE: Associated Press


Provisions of the 2009 Law

SOURCE: Associated Press