Changes to public records law sought in Pennsylvania

| 10/19/2007

In Pennsylvania, multiple bills that intend to give the public more access to government records are drawing attention in the statehouse.

In an effort to modify the rules of public access, the House State Government Committee voted Wednesday, Oct. 17, to advance a bill to the chamber floor that is intended to strengthen the ability of requesters to obtain budgets, meeting minutes, expense accounts and other government documents.

Information from state lawmakers would be included although state and local government officials’ e-mails would remain private.

The legislation follows events this spring that shut the public out from getting more information on a contract between the state and investment firm Morgan Stanley. Gov. Ed Rendell announced in March he selected the firm to analyze transportation funding options for roadways that include the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

The Rendell administration denied a request for information on the contract. Instead, information was made available only after it was signed.

The state’s Right-to-Know law specifies that before a contract is signed, it is considered an “offer.” As a result, it isn’t included among the documents that must be available to the public, the Altoona Mirror reported.

Sponsored by Rep. Tim Mahoney, D-Fayette, the bill would create a new state agency to act as a facilitator for the public in accessing records. The Office of Access to Public Records would advise requesters on how to obtain government information and their rights.

Responses from agencies would be required within 20 business days. Violators would face fines up to $1,000.

Exceptions would be made if agencies can establish that revealing a certain record is either illicit or confidential.

Requesters denied access to records would be able to challenge the denial in court. If the court rules in favor of the requester, the offending agency could face fines up to $1,000.

Opponents say the bill includes unprecedented exemptions and allows agencies to subjectively deny “burdensome” requests. There are concerns the bill would lead to less access than is available under the current law.

The bill – HB443 – could come up for consideration on the House floor as early as next week.

Another bill tackling the state’s open records law includes fewer exceptions than the House bill. Sponsored by Sen. Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware, the bill would require agencies to have an open records office to handle requests.

Responses to requests would be required within five business days. Agencies in violation would face $1,000 fines.

Agencies also would be required to set up Web sites to post advisories and decisions.

One other bill puts the burden of proving that information is not a public record on the agency denying access. Sponsored by Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Pittsburgh, the bill would include state universities and the Legislature, which are not under current law.

Agencies would be required to respond in 10 business days. Violations would result in $500 fines.

Pileggi’s bill – SB1 – and Ferlo’s bill – SB765 – are in the Senate State Government Committee.

To view other legislative activities of interest for Pennsylvania in 2007, click here.

– By Keith Goble, state legislative editor