By Terry Mutchler
National Sunshine Week did not exist in the 1700s, but the Founding Fathers knew all too well the frustrations of accessing public records and even wrote about it right here in Philadelphia.
In their fourth of 27 enumerated grievances against the king, the Declaration of Independence lamented that his majesty would call together public bodies at unusual and uncomfortable places "distant from the depository of their public records for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures."
Fatiguing them into compliance. I often saw that dynamic play out as the first executive director of Pennsylvania's Office of Open Records, whether with citizens working hard to obtain public records or the office itself doing repeated battle to remain independent in both policy and purse strings.
It is beyond doubt that the 2009 rewrite of the Right-to-Know Law by Sen. Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware) resulted in the release of hundreds of thousands of records. The remedial legislation, signed by Gov. Ed Rendell, netted scores of success stories. Requests revealed a school district that kept fired employees on the payroll for months; expired foods being served to children; a city trying to hide receipt of a million-dollar donation; and a financially ailing agency that seemed to have misplaced original, valuable artwork. Those were just some of the discoveries resulting from disclosures required by the act.
Gov. Wolf is setting the pace to become the most open administration in state history, if not the country. Despite the pending issue of whether the executive director is an at-will employee, consider the actions of the new chief executive. On Inauguration Day, he issued an order banning his administration from accepting gifts, asked me to train his new cabinet on the fundamentals of the Right-to-Know Law (he sat in the front row), and made his calendar electronically available to the public. Compare these actions with the previous administration, which barred the Office of Open Records from directly contacting cabinet members, denied a request for a copy of the state constitution, and went to court to block release of the governor's daily calendar.
Prior to 2008, the National Freedom of Information Coalition ranked Pennsylvania 49th in the nation for many years. Since the creation of the Office of Open Records, we have improved that abysmal number to as high as fifth in some rankings.
But public officials also stepped up their game, finding sophisticated, albeit shameful, ways to block information and fatigue citizens. Agencies backdated responses to requests, effectively undercutting citizens' appeal rights unless they happened to save the postmarked envelope. Some agencies simply ignored citizens' often-repeated requests if they didn't use the magic phrase Right-to-Know Law Request. Other officials would claim that records didn't exist, until the Office of Open Records required them to sign an affidavit under penalty of perjury that resulted in "nonexistent" records suddenly being discovered.
Such creative approaches to thwarting public scrutiny are not limited to the state. Look at former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's creation of her own Internet server and, equally incredible, those in the highest levels of government who apparently "didn't notice" the .gov missing from her e-mail address.
Intended or not, the consequence of all of the above is that public records stay in locked cabinets instead of being put in the hands of the citizenry that owns them.
Public disclosure, our knowledge, and our decision-making improve when citizens have information. Transparency, after all, is the bedrock of democracy. We have laws and constitutional requirements that provide for access. Our work now is to make sure that Sunshine exists not only on paper but in principle, and that we celebrate it all year long, not just this week.