Here at the Citizen Media Law Project we recently finished the fourth major section of our Legal Guide on Access to Government Information. As we were researching the various freedom of information laws, we came across Pennsylvania’s recently enacted Right-To-Know Law which goes into effect on January 1, 2009, and wanted to again applaud its arrival (we initially noted the Governor's signing of the law back in February).
The Better Government Association watchdog group ranks Pennsylvania’s current open records law near the bottom (48th of the 50 states) for quality of public access. The law itself dates back to 1957 and seemed fairly ensconced until a recent spate of highly publicized government scandals triggered its reassessment. The notorious attempt by the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Authority’s to cover up the hundreds of thousands of dollars it spent on resort trips for board members and staff over a five year period, and the Democratic caucus’ infamous secret payment of legislative bonuses totaling 1.9 million dollars to staff members were among the more egregious news stories and resulted in public outcry demanding greater government transparency.
Although the law doesn’t break any new ground for government access in general, the new Right-To-Know law will make the existing opaque regime more transparent. The law finally recognizes that agencies and officials are caretakers, and that government records belong to the public. While the current law places the burden on the individual to demonstrate entitlement to a record, the new law presumes that government records are open for public inspection. Moreover, this new vision percolates to the procedural details—for example, you do not need to provide a reason for inspecting a record and the law specifically allows you to make a request anonymously.
Not surprisingly, there are those who feel that the new law does not go far enough. Some lament the Department of Community and Economic Development's role in overseeing the appeals process arguing that it is not a truly independent body. The potpourri of other critiques include the lack of criminal penalties for repeat agency offenders, the exemption allowing for the nondisclosure of the names, ages, and addresses of juveniles, the limited access to 911 calls, and the restrictions on accessing autopsy reports.
But the overwhelming sentiment is relief, as the new law comes a long way. It includes an individual’s ability to access the records of the General Assembly, and ensures a smoother request process. For example, the statute sets a small cost for reproduction in contrast to the sometimes prohibitive fees that agencies have charged under the current law.
Hopefully, the public will make good use of the new law to scrutinize state and local government practices and head off dubious actions such as the state’s decision not to publicize a list of polling places during the fall 2007 elections. Here’s to the coming sunshine in Pennsylvania!
(For more information about the new Pennsylvania Right-To-Know Law, refer to the section on Access to Public Records in Pennsylvania in our legal guide.)