Secrecy shrouds tax-funded study

A formal request by the Sun-Gazette to obtain a copy of a consultant’s study findings that provides analysis and recommendations to Lycoming County government on its prison expansion plans and court system modifications was denied this week by the county commissioners.

The $84,000 contract with Ebensburg-based L.R. Kimball architectural and consulting firm was approved May 3, 2012, by commissioners and was to be finished by Aug. 31, 2012.

That document exists, but a letter signed Wednesday by Ann M. Gehret, county interim director of administration and chief clerk, said the information was “predecisional” and could not be released.

A Right to Know request was filed by the Sun-Gazette on Jan. 31.

Pennsylvania’s Right to Know Law includes 30 exemptions, which includes a stipulation that certain information may be withheld by agencies because they are determined to be predecisional, or in an internal stage of deliberation.

But Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel at the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association in Harrisburg, said the results of the study may have automatically become a public document when the Lycoming County Prison Board discussed it at its Friday meeting.

Melewsky said that information presented to an agency’s board of directors at their meeting should be publicly-available.

The Sun-Gazette was provided a copy of the contract between the county and the consultant and a brief synopsis of recommendations, but not the full report.

Melewsky said the Right to Know Law was written for broad interpretation and inspection.

“The intent of the (board information) law is so that people can understand what is being discussed at a public meeting,” she said.

County officials said Friday after the prison board meeting that the study’s results could be shared with the Sun-Gazette at a later date, but with an accompanying explanation of the data.

Contract Details

A contract that was provided to the Sun-Gazette between Lycoming County government and L.R. Kimball consultants details some tasks that were undertaken by the company that examines the need for prison expansion and incarceration alternatives.

The study was conducted in partnership with Carter Goble Lee, a Miami, Fla.-based correctional planner.

Information was gathered that shows the county inmate population projections, criminal justice trends, correctional system needs and alternatives to incarceration.

The consultants also were assigned to provide site evaluation and concept design for a new county prison, as well as to make recommendations for possible improvement for holding inmates at the Lycoming County Courthouse.