Throughout his 2007 campaign and five-plus years as mayor, Michael Nutter has promoted the virtues of government transparency and open records.
At a U.S. Conference of Mayors event in Philadelphia last month, described as an "innovation summit," Nutter patted himself on the back for releasing 47 data sets covering everything from crime to property values.
But in the last year, the administration has created new procedural and legal hurdles, with attendant delays, for people seeking access to city records.
An unpublicized decision this year by City Solicitor Shelley R. Smith threatens to shut off public access to the detailed explanations for millions of dollars in city legal settlements - records considered public for the last 30 years at least.
The tension between the administration and reporters over public records has been apparent since June 5, when a four-story brick wall collapsed on a Salvation Army thrift shop, killing six people.
In the aftermath, the Nutter administration said city staff has visited 300 demolition sites to make sure they are safe for the general public. Reporters have asked repeatedly for the list, but it has not been released.
Neither has an application for city demolition work filed months before the accident by S&R Contracting, the firm whose owner, Sean Benschop, faces manslaughter charges in the accident. The city approved S&R for demolition work on imminently dangerous buildings, but reporters have been unable to review the five-page application Benschop used to convince the city of his competence and financial stability.
Ronald Wagenhoffer, a city building inspector who apparently committed suicide a week after the accident, left behind two short videos taken with his iPhone shortly before he shot himself.
One was clearly intended for his wife and son, the other, by inference, for a larger audience. City authorities have selectively quoted from the second video, in which Wagenhoffer purportedly said, "It wasn't my fault," but neither video has been made public.
Administration spokesman Mark McDonald said flatly that the city would not release the suicide videos. Requests for the demolition sites, contractor applications and other material are still pending, a process that can routinely take five weeks.
In a February memorandum marked "Privileged and Confidential Advice of Counsel," Smith told City Finance Director Rob Dubow and City Controller Alan Butkovitz that they should no longer allow the public to see the brief memos written by city attorneys to initiate settlement payments resolving claims against the city.
Similar evaluations, describing the factual circumstances and the reasons for paying tax dollars to resolve all sorts of legal claims against the city, including police abuse and other major cases, have been treated as public records for decades.
Records provided by the Controller's Office identify $878,901 in city payments related to demolition claims alone over the last five years.
But Smith said the Law Department had decided that the memos are privileged communication between lawyers and clients, exempt from disclosure under the right-to-know law and state court decisions.
"In light of these legal developments and the underlying rationale that supports them - namely, the protection of the exchange of information relating to decisions whether to settle claims against the city and the thought processes that underlie those decisions," Smith wrote, "we ask going forward that your offices deny any and all such requests for 'recommendations of settlement.' "
Butkovitz said that he believed the Law Department's settlement explanations should be available to the public, but that he is legally bound to follow the solicitor's advice.
There "has been a struggle for information about how frequently these events happen, how often people get hurt, how severe their injuries are, and what the city's responsibilities should be in regulating these activities," Butkovitz said.
Public-record experts including Terry Mutchler, executive director of the state's Office of Open Records, and Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel with the Pennsylvania News Media Association, said Smith's legal analysis appeared sound. They said the settlement memos could be construed as legal advice, exempt from disclosure under the state's right-to-know law.
But they questioned why city officials would change disclosure policies they had followed for 30 years or more.
"If it's always been public in the past, it should remain public," Melewsky said. "But I can't say you'll win that battle in court."
Smith said in an interview that the Law Department's review of the public-record law and related court decisions supported her position.
"I think it's not materially different from our general position that we don't talk about cases in litigation," she said.
Smith said she could not recall whether she had discussed the issue with Nutter.
McDonald said Nutter supported Smith's decision.
Reporters seeking any sort of records from the city, such as the list of sites with demolition permits, are routinely asked to file right-to-know requests, subject to review by the Law Department.
State law provides five business days for municipal governments to respond to public-record requests, but the law provides for 30 more calendar days when the government cites staffing limitations or the need for a legal review.
When The Inquirer contacted the Department of Licenses and Inspections last week seeking the names of various L&I employees, the request was referred to the Law Department.
An assistant city solicitor said that because of the high volume of requests, he could not say how long it would take. "Our standard turnaround time is approximately 37 calendar days," the attorney said.
While state law allows public-record requests to be made by mail, e-mail, or fax, the city has imposed an additional requirement: filling out an official request form developed by the state Office of Open Records.
People who ask the city for records without filling out the form are typically advised, a week later, that their request will be considered unofficial, still to be processed at some point but without any applicable response deadlines.
"We hadn't heard that scenario," said Barry Kauffman, executive director of Pennsylvania Common Cause. "But unfortunately, we have seen long delays. . . . It shouldn't become a bureaucratic boondoggle just to get a basic question answered. It winds up costing a lot of public money."
Inquirer staff writers Paul Nussbaum and Harold Brubaker contributed to this article.