Senator proposes open-records law rework
HARRISBURG — A new proposal to make changes to Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law would include limits on access by inmates and authorize the Office of Open Records to review documents in private to see if they should be released.
The 22-page bill introduced Friday by Sen. Dominic Pileggi of Delaware County, the Republican floor leader, would permit agencies to impose fees for commercial use of records, allow government to block “unduly burdensome” requests and exempt volunteer fire and rescue companies.
The proposal represents a first step as lawmakers consider revisions to the 2008 law that controls the public’s ability to get government information and records.
The Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association supports some elements but has concerns about others, said Deb Musselman, a lobbyist with the organization.
“There are some portions of the bill that, if they are not changed, would cause us to really have to sit down and think seriously about our position,” Musselman said. “But we are hopeful we can make our case about the things we want to change.”
Pileggi’s bill would not apply the law fully to Pennsylvania’s four “state-related” universities — Penn State, the University of Pittsburgh, Lincoln and Temple — but that provision, which has some support in the Legislature, could be added as an amendment. The campus police of the state-related schools, however, are added to the agencies that must comply with the law under the current draft.
The Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association was already covered under the law, but it would be moved to another section for technical reasons.
Pileggi’s proposal also would bring under the law economic and industrial development authorities.
It also would provide more detail about what must be disclosed from 911 center call logs.
If agencies feel they have been saddled with unduly burdensome requests, they would be allowed to ask a judge for a protective order.
“That’s very sticky and that’s something we are concerned could be misapplied,” Musselman said.
Inmates would be limited to a list of records, most of which pertain to the inmate directly, including his or her criminal records, work records and disciplinary records.
Pileggi said inmates account for a significant portion of requests under the Right-to-Know Law, requests that he said have questionable public benefit.
The Corrections Department said that 4,191 of the 5,898 open records requests it has fielded since 2009 were from inmates. The Office of Open Records’ 2012 report said inmates accounted for 31 percent of the appeals it handled, second to “citizens” at 56 percent.
Governmental bodies would be permitted to require people asking for records to state whether they intend to use them for commercial purposes. If so, the agencies could impose fees to search for, review and redact documents. Those fees could include the hourly wage of the lowest-paid agency worker who is capable of producing the records.
“Right now it exempts newspapers and radio and broadcast,” Musselman said. “We want to make clear that it applies to news gathering, like digital posting.”
Pileggi said the law was not intended to help companies around the country perform low-cost research.
“But some enterprising for-profit businesses have seen the potential to develop marketing leads, largely at the expense of government agencies,” Pileggi said.
Also, people who work at the Office of Open Records would not be allowed to comment on proceedings that are pending before the agency, although the executive director could comment on the law generally, and could explain its procedures.
Kim de Bourbon, executive director of the Pennsylvania Freedom of Information Coalition, said many of the proposed changes would restrict access, and many existing problems with access are not addressed.
“There are still far too many agencies spending a lot of time and effort trying to find reasons not to provide public records, rather than spending that time and effort to make it all easier for people to understand what their government is doing,” de Bourbon said.
Changes that Pileggi wants that she considers improvements include removing a requirement that people who appeal denials directly respond to the agency’s reason for saying no, and adding clarifying language to a section on getting records in computer format.
Pileggi said he did not have a deadline in mind for consideration of the bill but expected at least one public hearing will be conducted.