THE OFFICE of Open Records is a government success story. Created during the Rendell administration, the office was charged with enforcing a new Open Records law enacted by the state legislature. It has done so with vigor and fairness.
A lot of the thanks for that record should go to Terry Mutchler, the office's executive director since its creation. As a lawyer and former journalist, Mutchler has been an articulate and effective advocate for citizens' right to know, especially when it comes to the local and state bureaucracies whose first instinct to any request for information is to delay or deny.
In fact, the number of appeals for information that her office handles has risen steadily. That's a good sign that citizens are feeling more confident about petitioning government agencies for their records on spending, contracts and other details that we have a right to know.
But not everyone is happy with Mutchler's aggressive stance in favor of open records. Consider Senate Bill 444, now under consideration in Harrisburg.
On the whole, the bill has many positives. It strengthens the office; it affirms its right to be an independent agency of government and clarifies some of the murkier aspects of the original law.
As currently written, it also seeks to muzzle Mutchler and her successors to prevent them from speaking about cases before the agency or in the courts.
While Mutchler's office helps make public records available to the public, it also serves an adjudicative role. If a citizen makes a request of a public agency for information and is denied, he or she has the right to appeal to the OOR for a ruling. While the case is being considered by the agency, neither Mutchler nor any other member of her staff may comment on the merits of the appeal.
But, once OOR rules 'yea' or 'nay' on the request, Mutchler can - and often does - speak up in support of the OOR's rulings, even if the agency that denied the request decides to appeal the OOR decision to Commonwealth Court.
The language in SB444 states: "The office shall abstain from public comment about a pending proceeding before the office. . . ." Mutchler and her staff interpret that as meaning that they cannot comment on the case while it is on appeal in the courts. It essentially puts a gag order on OOR for as long as the case makes its way through the judiciary, a process that can and sometimes does take years.
No other agency of state government has such a restriction.
Mutchler has been outspoken about the special treatment given to the large state-related universities (such as Temple and Penn State), which are exempted from the open-records law. She has spoken about the refusal of Gov. Corbett's office to release details of his schedule after an OOR ruling in favor of a journalist who sought them. She has criticized charter schools for being so secretive. Recently, she took up the case of a 13-year-old student in Chambersburg who was denied information she sought from school officials.
The Senate should recognize the irony of trying to close down communications from the Office of Open Records, and remove this restrictive language from the bill.