A dozen news media companies in Pennsylvania, including The Times Leader, should not have to go to court simply to see records that rightfully belong to you, the public.
But they did last week, forming a first-of-its-kind coalition in the Keystone State to draw attention to an important but often ignored issue: government secrecy.
Far too often, government bodies that are legally mandated to do their business openly, and which rely on tax dollars to operate, instead shroud certain actions they take and paper trails they make, shutting out the very people on whose behalf they supposedly do things. In this case, the entity shoving things behind a curtain happens to be the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission. (Oh, the irony of that name.)
In mid-November, this newspaper spotlighted the illogical and improper behavior in an editorial titled “Something stinks about PUC secrecy.”
Here’s a recap of the situation: The PUC supposedly received an anonymous letter, suggesting that PPL, the Allentown-based electricity supplier, acted unlawfully after an October 2011 snowstorm had caused widespread power outages. The energy provider allegedly transferred one of its restoration crews from a high-priority job to a low-priority job — a violation of both its internal guidelines and state law. The commission investigated the accusation. PPL, while admitting no guilt, ultimately agreed to a pay a $60,000 fine.
Was the fine too steep? Was it a slap on the wrist? If PPL did misdirect a crew, where to and why?
Good questions all, but when reporter Andrew M. Seder of The Times Leader asked for the “tip letter” that prompted the investigation, he was told no.
Seder subsequently filed a formal request to see it with the state’s Office of Open Records, which looked into the matter and sided with the newspaper. It gave the PUC 30 days to release the letter or to file an appeal. Meanwhile, a reporter with The Morning Call of Allentown was similarly pursuing not only the “tip letter,” but other materials used in the PUC’s investigation and ruling. That reporter’s requests also were rejected.
The PUC seemingly intends to defend its position in Commonwealth Court, arguing that a public commission that oversees a utility serving the public has the right to keep documents (aka facts) used in a judgment involving an issue of public concern out of the public domain.
Why has the PUC taken this unreasonable stance?
We can’t say for sure. As part of the settlement reached between PPL and the PUC, the regulatory commission foolishly agreed to keep a lid on the “tip letter.”
However, case law in Pennsylvania suggests that pact is meaningless.
After The Times Leader’s editorial taking the PUC to task was printed, a commission spokeswoman responded with a letter to the editor contending the PUC must “guard any information” that could identify whistle-blowers, lest it discourage people from reporting possible wrongdoing. That’s all well and good, but it ignores the fact that the PUC can redact any telltale details from documents prior to their public inspection, thereby safeguarding people’s identities.
We think that’s sufficient protection, balancing the needs of the public and would-be tipsters. For that reason, we think the PUC’s stated position is a bunch of (redacted 1; see “key to redacted words” below). We encourage officials at the Harrisburg-based commission and at PPL’s corporate office to get off their (redacted 2), acknowledging the need for transparency, even if it causes some embarrassment.
It’s a matter of (redacted 3) trust.
Key to redacted words: (1) nonsense, (2) high horses and (3) public.