State law enables ordinary citizens

Think government has power over you, that you are helpless?

Then you might want to think again.

The state’s Right-to-Know Law is intended to empower ordinary citizens by presuming that the records of government agencies are public and giving the public the right to inspect and request copies of them.

When it went into effect in 2009, the law created an Office of Open Records, an administrative-level agency, said Melissa Melewsky, media law council for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association.

Prior to the law, if a records request was denied by a government agency, the requester had to hire a lawyer and file a lawsuit. Now, appeals may be filed to the Office of Open Records at no charge as it’s funded by taxpayer dollars, with no attorney necessary, Melewsky said.

In the nearly five years since it’s been operational, the office has decided more than 8,100 appeals, said Terry Mutchler, executive director, Office of Open Records.

State Rep. Rick Mirabito, D-Williamsport, said the law empowers ordinary citizens. It also is important for a free press.

“One of the important things to remember is that so many decisions are made, and if people don’t have access to it, then you really end up with a bureaucracy running the government, rather than holding elected representatives accountable,” Mirabito said.

Further, the law is essential for a democracy to function, he said.

“This is not only having educated voters, but in terms of people being empowered to participate in the process,” Mirabito said.

In Melewsky’s opinion, certain aspects of the law could be improved, such as certain exemptions of the 30 the law designates.

The definitions for certain exemptions are too broad, she said. Records that are “internal, predecisional and deliberative” are exempt from public access. Because of that broad definition, it’s one of the most commonly cited reasons for denial, she said.

The law also exempts draft documents, but “there’s no guidance in the statute to tell us when a draft becomes final,” Melewsky said.

The interpretation of the personnel exemption means the public has no right to know why a public employee was fired or demoted, she said.

When the law passed, it not only granted citizens power to make requests, but agencies and corporate entities, as well.

State Rep. Garth Everett, R-Muncy, and state Sen. E. Eugene Yaw, R-Loyalsock Township, said they are generally supportive of the law, but not for commercial use, as it adds an extra administrative burden for which the agencies should be allowed to charge.

Yaw said this should apply to the media, as well.

“When newspapers or media ask for extensive Right-to-Know requests, and it’s for their commercial purposes … If you want it, that’s fine, but we should have a fee schedule that allows municipalities to recoup the actual costs involved,” Yaw said.

Agencies may charge 25 cents per paper page; equipment, staffing and retrieval costs are built into that charge, Melewsky said, addressing Yaw’s concern.

Plus, “the press is constitutionally protected, and it’s not commercial in the same sense as someone requesting deeds … the press is not re-selling the data,” Melewsky said.

Toward privacy concerns, Everett, state Rep. Michael K. Hanna Sr., D-Lock Haven, and state Rep. Matthew E. Baker, R-Wellsboro, said specific information for government employees, such as salary and addresses, should not be given, as is that information for elected officials.

Hanna said a balance must be struck between prison inmates’ ability to get information and the practice of filing excessive, frivolous requests. Mirabito said he thinks the law could be strengthened in requiring hotel taxes to be more specifically reported.

State Sen. Joseph B. Scarnati III, R-Brockway, could not be reached for comment.