By Susan Schwartz
Legislative Committee Chair, Pennsylvania Freedom of Information Coalition
Project Sunshine Chair, Society of Professional Journalists
Reporter, the Press Enterprise, Columbia County
It’s an election year in Pennsylvania. Like dandelions in spring, legislators and their challengers will be popping up everywhere. They’ll be visiting civic clubs, fraternal organizations, classrooms, parades and debates, asking you to trust them enough to put them in charge.
This means you’ll get a chance to find out how much they trust you.
This week is National Sunshine Week, a celebration of open government and the people’s right to know what their public servants are doing in their name.
It so happens that a number of bills are working their way through the Legislature to change which taxpayer-funded documents you, the people who paid for them, are allowed to see.
So now’s a good chance to ask those candidates exactly where they stand.
Ask them why Pennsylvanians aren’t allowed to hear 9-1-1 tapes, when, according to the Reporters’ Committee for Freedom of the Press, citizens in 29 other states are trusted with that information. Remind them of Eddie Polec, the 16-year-old who died in Philadelphia in 1994 in part because emergency dispatchers — seven of whom were later disciplined — shrugged off the desperate calls of witnesses trying to summon police to stop the teens who beat him to death. The only reason we found out about the behavior of the dispatchers was because someone leaked the tapes to a television station.
Ask them why police incident reports aren’t public in Pennsylvania. Ask if they remember Shannon Schieber, who was murdered in Philadelphia in 1998 while police hid the fact that the serial rapist who became her killer had been stalking the streets for months.
Ask them what they think about an effort to exempt the home addresses of teachers from public records. I haven’t been able to find a single case of someone using public records to find and harm a teacher. But matching addresses helped residents of Central Columbia School District realize that the drunken, drugged woman who crashed her car one morning near Berwick was on her way to teach their sixth-graders.
Ask your candidates if they’re in favor of making Penn State and other state-related institutions follow the same open records rules as schools in the state system. After all, the 14 schools in the state system would split only $412.8 million in taxpayer money under Gov. Tom Corbett’s proposed 2014-2015 budget. The state-related institutions — Penn State, University of Pittsburgh, Lincoln, and Temple —would get $503 million. Why shouldn’t we be able to see where all of our higher education money is going?
Ask them if they’re in favor of an effort to exempt property tax and public utility information from the Right to Know Law, and if they are, ask them why. Tell them that’s vital information for home-buyers. If this change goes through, lenders and title agents will pay more and wait longer to get special permission to receive the figures. You can bet the cost will be passed on to home buyers. And while the title agents are hacking through the red tape, mortgage rates could rise.
Ask them if they’re in favor of bills that would allow private contractors doing work for government agencies to conceal documents that would be public if the government agency were doing the work for itself. Ask them why government agencies should be allowed to sign away their requirement to be accountable to the public. Tell them you have a right to know what’s being done in your name with your money.
Ask them whether they approve of an effort to hide the names of the winners of the state lottery. Remind them about the Triple Six Fix, when a corrupt lottery district manager, a television announcer and a few bettors arranged to inject the balls in the Daily Number drawing with paint, so the winning numbers would be a combination of 4 and 6. Tell them you wouldn’t enter a local church 50/50 drawing if organizers said winners would be kept secret. Why would you want to allow such secrecy in a game run by strangers in Harrisburg?
Too many politicians think they can get away with chipping away the public’s ability to keep an eye on government because they don’t believe regular citizens care. This is the time to show them that what your government does matters to you. Election season is one time you can be sure they’ll be listening.