By Kim de Bourbon
Pennsylvania Freedom of Information Coalition
Four years ago, Pennsylvania’s new “Right to Know Law” went into effect and gave citizens more access to government records of all kinds.
Much of the state and local government, however, still operates in the shadows, and many documents that are routinely part of the public record in other states are still off limits here … or officials act as though they are.
Some of that — a lot of that — has to do with sections of the law that are vaguely written and riddled with “gray area.” Many provisions need to be clarified, and some need to be changed outright. Four years out, there is still a lot of confusion about how parts of the law should be interpreted.
But some of the difficulties, let’s face it, lie in the lingering effect of many decades of official resistance to letting people know what their government is up to.
Call it a time-honored tradition that needs to change.
The Right to Know Law — make no mistake — has meant a major improvement in government transparency. It used to be that citizens could only see “accounts, vouchers and contracts,” or financial documents and “minutes, orders and decisions” — records of action that had already taken place. There was no chance for the public to be informed about the decision-making process because background documents weren’t available either before or after decisions were made. And if you wanted to see something that the government didn’t want to show you, it took a court order to get them to turn it over.
Now, the law starts out with the presumption that all government records belong to the people, and it requires government agencies, if they wish to withhold records from the public, to defend that decision and explain how the law permits them to do that.
And, if your request for a record is turned down, we now have a state Office of Open Records that listens to your case and decides if you are entitled to see it, or not.
These are good things.
But having a good law and having a universally good “open government” attitude across the state are two different things.
One problem is that while the law seems to promise timeliness, too often it doesn’t deliver. Agencies must respond to records requests within five business days … but that response can simply say that they are going to take another month to review the request. They are supposed to cite a legitimate reason for taking more time, but too often agencies are making it a matter of policy to automatically take that extra 30 days under the guise of “legal review” … and then to provide records on the very last allowable day.
This is not an attitude that promotes open government.
The law also barely acknowledges the existence of electronic documents. Without question, it does make all records available in the format in which they exist, including digital. But most agencies are still providing paper copies — at a fee of 25 cents a page — without bothering to ask if the requester would like an electronic version, which in most cases would cost the requester nothing.
The law says nothing about making records more accessible by posting them online. Government offices that feel burdened by the obligation to provide records to the public should be working toward this. Ultimately, making routine government records — minutes, agendas, budgets, permits, contracts, ordinances, etc. — accessible and searchable online is going to save everyone a lot of time and money.
The state, for example, has its “e-Contracts Library” where all contracts of $5,000 or more are posted, and has recently launched its “PennWATCH” site, which — although not perfect — is a good step towards increasing state government transparency. But too many counties, municipalities and school districts have not taken steps to post even simple PDFs of their routine records, and there is no requirement for them to do so.
In short, we’d like to see more elected officials and public servants buy into the idea that the government and its records belong to the people, and that more needs to be done to shine some light on how government works. We’d like to see more government agencies working harder to help citizens get the information they need, not working to find reasons they shouldn’t.
Along those lines, it is also time to improve the state’s open meetings law, known as the Sunshine Act.
This law gives citizens the right to attend, participate in and even record government meetings, and mandates that all decisions be made in the public eye. But because there is no way to force compliance without taking an agency to court, the law’s “executive session” provision is widely misused by those who find it difficult to discuss their business in front of their constituents.
But laws and official behavior only change if citizens want them to change, and we at the Pennsylvania Freedom of Information Coalition encourage citizens to stand up and hold their elected officials accountable.
Our online Pennsylvania Open Government Forum handles more than 300 inquiries a year from people – citizens and elected officials alike – who have questions about the state’s open records and open meetings laws. And it’s clear from the questions and problems being posted that there is still a lot of work to be done to open up government attitudes and understanding.
Citizens can help the cause by learning about their rights to access records and attend meetings, and by making sure their government agencies follow these laws, both in letter and in spirit.
Kim de Bourbon is executive director of the Pennsylvania Freedom of Information Coalition, a non-profit group that helps citizens understand and use the state’s open records and open meetings laws through its website at www.pafoic.org. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.