Right to Know needs more clout

June 24th, 2015 5:24 pm

First Posted: 5/1/2013

Pennsylvania’s laughably weak “Right to Know” laws must be strengthened. Revisions made just five years ago opened up even larger loopholes that need to be closed. If it is to have any effect whatsoever, the state Office of Open Records must be the final deciding factor on what is made public.

When lawmakers revised the state’s Right to Know laws, it did so under the guise that government should be transparent. Records should be open whenever possible, according to the spirit of the law, and government agencies should be proactive in fulfilling requests for information.

Since those revisions, however, getting public records has been made even more difficult, according to Kim de Bourbon, executive director of the Pennsylvania Freedom of Information Coalition. Not only are many local, county and state agencies not complying with open-records requests, some even go so far as to flat-out lie to deny the release of taxpayer-funded information.

A story in Monday’s Sentinel by the nonprofit news group PublicSource detailed an example from 2011 involving the state Department of Environmental Protection. The agency said it couldn’t fulfill an information request because it would mean “trawling through raw data” and “creating a new record.” In fact, those records did exist. The agency simply opted to lie about it.

Perhaps even more troubling, the revised Right to Know laws opened up a giant loophole that agencies never before had the option of jumping through. The Office of Open Records is the go-to agency to appeal denied information requests. However, that office doesn’t get the final say in anything. Government agencies have the ability now to appeal Office of Open Records rulings using the court system.

A misconception is that Right to Know requests primarily exist so nosey reporters can get their hands on private or personal information. PublicSource’s journalism revealed that only 4 percent of Right to Know requests come from media outlets. The people being hurt the most by the state’s weak open-government laws are everyday citizens.

State lawmakers like to talk out of both sides of their mouths when it comes to open records. Politicians delight in talking up the virtues of full disclosure, yet they approved Right to Know laws that ensure the opposite can happen far too frequently.

While the latest amendments to the state’s Right to Know laws are only five years old, it’s time for Harrisburg to reconvene and truly get serious about the public’s right to information about our government.

The Sentinel (Carlisle, Pa.)