Pennsylvania Senate OKs bill to alter access to public records

| 12/5/2007

The Pennsylvania Senate has approved a bill that is intended to strengthen the ability of the public to obtain government records.

The filing of 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 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 newspaper reported.

By a vote of 48-1, the Senate advanced a bill – SB1 – to the House that would create a new state agency to act as a facilitator for the public in accessing state and local documents.

The Open Records Clearinghouse would handle appeals of rejections of requests for records from the executive branch of state government, state agencies, local governments and schools. The director would be appointed by the governor for six years.

The Pennsylvania General Assembly and judiciary would appoint their appeal officers.

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

Meanwhile, a separate bill – HB2072 – moving through the House would apply the open records rules to the Legislature. Legislative records would be “presumed” to be open unless they are specifically exempted under the bill.

Both bills would require that information at the state and local levels of government be made available as long as it doesn’t fall into one of 28 exceptions – for example, personal Social Security numbers, records deemed to threaten domestic security and police investigative records.

Both bills would require responses from executive and local agencies 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 requester, the offending agency could face fines up to $1,000. Agencies also would be required to set up Web sites to post all state contracts, including contracts with the Legislature.

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

– By Keith Goble, state legislative editor