About the best thing you can say about Pennsylvania’s Open Records Law is that it’s not as bad as it used to be.
It’s sort of in the same condition as someone who needs to lose 50 pounds and has lost three.
There have been steps in the right direction, but there’s still a long way to go.
It’s been a little more than 10 years since the current open records law took effect. Before the law changed, government records were presumed to be closed.
As of Jan. 1, 2009, those records were presumed to be open to the public. Great. But the new law came with a lengthy list of exemptions. Combined with a still-existing culture of spotty record-keeping and sharing by some government agencies, it remains difficult and frustrating for anyone — private citizen or media member — to get certain local and state government records made public.
One of the assumed positives in the current law is the fact that if a government denies a record request — a frequent occurrence — a record-seeker can appeal the decision at no cost, without a lawyer, to the commonwealth’s Office of Open Records.
Here’s the issue with that. Rulings by that office can be appealed in court, which likely means legal expense when a government agency remains intent on denying the request.
Those agencies can end up spending your taxpayer dollars to keep you from accessing what should be public records.
Throughout this year, The Daily Item, led by reporter Francis Scarcella, has sought financial records for Pennsylvania’s Interscholastic Athletic Association’s District IV, which covers the Susquehanna Valley, as we seek to determine if they have spent taxpayer dollars appropriately.
The PIAA has stated that District IV is the only district in the state that does not file financial records to that statewide governing body.
In our attempt to obtain these records, we requested cellphone text messages and emails from four District IV officials. We sought text messages, from April 1 to May 10, and emails, from March 1 to May 10.
Earlier this month, the Office of Open Records ruled, in what’s ironically called a “Final Determination,” that Sullivan County Superintendent Patricia Cross had to provide the records to The Daily Item within 30 days.
Sounds like we won, right? We’d finally be able to tell readers if the area PIAA district has spent money appropriately or not.
Not so fast.
The district has another chance to appeal, with 30 days allowed for that decision. The deadline this time for the Sullivan County School District is Aug. 10.
If they appeal, we will need to once again argue why we should get the information that the Office of Open Records has already ruled we — and thus you — should have.
If the district does not answer — another option — we will need to file what’s called an enforcement action in court.
Guess what the Office advises about that.
“The OOR strongly recommends that anyone considering legal action to enforce a Final Determination seek advice of counsel...”
The state’s Open Records Law may indeed be better than it was in 2009. But it’s still chock full of ways to delay or keep information from getting to the public.
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