Pennsylvania bill would alter access to public records

| 10/30/2007

A Pennsylvania Senate panel unanimously approved a bill that would change the state’s open records law.

In an effort to modify the rules of public access, the Senate State Government Committee voted Monday, Oct. 29, to advance a bill to the chamber floor that is intended to strengthen the ability of the public to obtain government records.

Information at the state and local levels of government would be available as long as it doesn’t fall into one of 28 exceptions – personal social security numbers, records deemed to threaten domestic security and police investigative records, for example.

The legislation follows events this spring that shut out the public from getting more information on a contract between the state and investment firm Morgan Stanley. Gov. Ed Rendell announced in March that he selected the firm to analyze transportation funding options for 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 Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware, the bill was amended to change existing Pennsylvania law so that all records from executive agencies and local agencies are presumed to be open unless they fall under a specific exception.

The bill – SB1 – would create a new state agency to act as a facilitator for the public in accessing records. The Open Records Clearinghouse would advise people requesting documents on how to obtain government information and what their rights are.

Responses from executive and local agencies would be required within five business days – down from 10. Agencies also would be required to justify denials when a dispute goes to court, instead of forcing the person seeking the record to show why it should be public.

If the court rules in favor of the person requesting the document, the offending agency could face fines up to $1,000. Subsequent fines for noncompliance could be up to $2,000.

Agencies also would be required to set up Web sites to post all state contracts, including contracts with the Legislature.

Opponents say the bill doesn’t go far enough in removing the cloak of secrecy. They want more access to legislative documents.

A similar House bill – HB443 – could come up for consideration on the House floor as early as this week. The House version would allow records to be denied if repeated requests are made, creating an “unreasonable burden on the agency.”

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

– By Keith Goble, state legislative editor