Office of Open Records lawyer: Requests on rise

Members of the Lycoming/Sullivan Counties Borough Association were briefed on Pennsylvania’s right-to-know law at their meeting Wednesday evening.

Charles Brown, senior attorney with the Office of Open Records, told the group how the law, signed in 2008, has “fundamentally changed the way citizens access public records.”

Brown said his office had 2,188 appeals in 2012 to denials of open records requests, up 89 percent from 2009.

Less than 20 percent of those appeals were granted.

“It’s no longer incumbent on the citizen to say a record is public,” Brown said. “Pennsylvania has gone from 48th in the nation in transparency to about 25th … our caseload is exploding.”

Any legal U.S. citizen can file a right-to-know request.

“You must request a specific record,” Brown said. “What’s causing agencies and taxpayers some trouble is there’s no bright line standard on what’s specific.”

Agencies covered under the law include municipalities and police and fire departments.

“Volunteer fire departments are a hot-button issue in the Commonwealth,” Brown said. “Certain counties have appealed to Commonwealth court, and the court has said no, they’re not included (under the law). Fire departments are something the legislature has considered pulling out of.”

Once a request is made, an agency must respond within five business days, and may request an extension to 30 days. An agency can claim 30 exemptions to deny a request, including attorney-client privilege and some types of personal information, and an agency can say they do not have a record if it doesn’t exist.

Citizens must make an appeal to a denied request within 15 days. Once Brown’s office receives an appeal, they must turn it around within 30 days.

The Open Records office “does nothing to prohibit you from having your own record retention schedule,” Brown said. “Financial records are never exempt, but there are certain redactions you can make.”

Agencies can charge up to 25 cents per copy, and may charge that if they need to print something out to make a redaction.

“So if someone wants to see your kickback checks, you have to show them the check, but you can block out the bank account number,” Brown said. “You do see some requesters who think every public official is a crook, but the vast majority of public officials want to do what they can for their constituents.”