Dennis Lyons

The pandemic has left us all spinning our wheels at times and not really sure what to do next.

The same can be said for those charged with responding to it in Harrisburg. It’s not surprising that there have been missteps.

How Gov. Tom Wolf, the state Department of Health and the Legislature have responded to this public health crisis will be debated for years. It will certainly be a factor in the 2022 gubernatorial election.

 Right now, our virus numbers are way down and vaccinations are increasing. Pennsylvania is being smartly deliberate in easing restrictions, unlike some other states.

Overall, though, Harrisburg leadership has produced a mixed bag of successes and puzzling choices, including, most recently, the struggle to schedule and distribute the COVID-19 vaccines. 

We — and by that I mean you — have every right to question and ask for data to show how the state has managed — or mismanaged — the pandemic.

Judging by how the state has stalled and often denied Open Records and Right to Know requests over the past year, though, asking for answers doesn’t mean getting them.

Each year since 2006, journalists nationwide have marked Sunshine Week in mid-March. That week, which starts today, is a time to stress the importance of access to public information and what it means for you and your right to know what government officials are doing.

It’s fair to say the commonwealth has not been a model for spreading public records sunshine in the past year.

Last week, the state House held the first in a planned series of hearings to examine the state’s response to the pandemic.

With both the state House and Senate controlled by Republicans, this is an obvious partisan opportunity to bash Wolf’s Democratic administration.

Nevertheless, it’s clear the state’s response merits scrutiny.

John Finnerty, The Daily Item’s state reporter, covered that first hearing. His story included some background about Act 77, passed in the General Assembly last July to require the Wolf administration to release more information about its mitigation efforts.

There has been a lack of transparency on several fronts, including how the state decided which businesses should be allowed to remain open during the state’s COVID shutdown, the handling of nursing home COVID information and the vaccine distribution.

Even with Act 77 in place, Finnerty reported, the Department of Health has argued against releasing much of the information sought by records requesters, saying these are health records and not meant to be public. 

Elizabeth Wagenseller, the new executive director of the Office of Open Records, told him the number of appeals of open records requests denials this year is on pace to hit 3,200, which would be a 31% increase over the prior year, 

It will be interesting — and important — to see how these appeals play out. We’ll be paying close attention.

From our experience here at The Daily Item, I can tell you that even when the Office of Open Records rules in your favor, it doesn’t mean you automatically get the information you are seeking.

We’re months into that process with the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association and still don’t have all the records about their expenses that we were granted by the OOR after a back and forth process that took more than two years.

That’s an awfully long time to have clouds instead of sunshine.

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