Pennsylvania House approves bill to alter access to public records

| 12/21/2007

Widely regarded as having one of the nation’s weakest right-to-know laws, the Pennsylvania House unanimously approved an effort to overhaul the state’s open records law and strengthen the ability of requesters to obtain government records.

The bill – SB1 – now heads back to the Senate for approval of 19 changes made while in the House. However, final passage in the statehouse will have to wait until year. The Senate opted to hold off on considering the revised bill until after Jan. 1 when the second year of the two-year session convenes.

The House version would mandate all records are public beyond a list of exceptions. It also would expand the law to include records of the Legislature but prevent disclosure of birth dates and phone numbers in public records.

Opponents say the bill doesn’t go far enough in removing the cloak of secrecy. Others say they don’t like the fact that legislative records in existence before the revised law takes effect would not be included.

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 reported.

Another provision in the bill would create an office to act as a facilitator for the public in accessing state and local documents.

The Public Records Office would handle repeals of rejections of requests for records. In addition, agencies would be prohibited from charging for research, redaction and copying time, The Associated Press reported.

The bill 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.

If the Senate approves the House version, it would move to Gov. Ed Rendell’s desk. If not, a conference committee made up of select members from both chambers would meet to work out their differences.

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

– By Keith Goble, state legislative editor