Report: most agencies field few open records requests
HARRISBURG — Most agencies receive few or no requests for records under Pennsylvania’s public access law and only a fraction of them are appealed, according to a report on law’s costs released Tuesday.
A drastic revision of Pennsylvania Right-to-Know Law was enacted a decade ago, leading to expanded access and a new set of procedures for handling requests, denials and appeals.
The Legislative Budget and Finance Committee report was ordered after some governmental bodies raised complaints about the cost of complying with the law and the amount of time it can distract public employees from other duties.
Auditors said about 40 percent of the 588 anonymous requests they made for agency budgets were ignored or turned down, even though it’s indisputably a public record.
Findings in the report:
• More than half the agencies surveyed spent less than $500 annually dealing with open records requests. A majority received 10 or fewer requests in 2016, although 6 percent had to answer more than 100. Combined, state and local agencies received an estimated 109,000 requests under the law over the course of the year.
• About 4 percent of agencies accounted for 80 percent of the appeals. More than 94 percent reported no appeals.
• The study’s authors said the total cost for state and local agencies to field requests in 2016 was in the range of $5.7 million to $9.7 million.
WHAT’S A BURDEN?
“The issue of burdensome requests appears to be highly dependent on what the agency perceives to be burdensome,” the study said. “This suggests that the issue is more directly related to concerns about the type of request being made or who is making the request.”
Almost one-third of requests that the agencies themselves considered “overly burdensome” were fulfilled in less than three hours and another third in three to eight hours.
About 7 percent of all requests were made by inmates, with more than half of those being made to the Corrections Department. Almost all inmate requests were fulfilled within three hours.
Examples of burdensome requests cited in the study included a township — with no full-time employees, no website and no municipal building — that was hit with a 31-paragraph request for information about litigation and roadways over a 10-year period. It produced 3,727 pages and billed the requester $969.
A request for a vast trove of information about a school construction project required 30 boxes of documents, a hard drive with data and a legal review — after which the requester never came to examine the records.
The study recommended the law be amended to let the Office of Open Records establish an hourly fee for requests made for commercial entities or requests that are exceedingly time-consuming. It said the working press or researchers could be exempted, and there could be a method of waiving fees when that would be in the public’s best interest.
The survey found that 26 percent of all requests are coming from outside the state, and about 71 percent of those are made for commercial purposes.
The study found that some government officials refer every Right-to-Know Law request reviewed by a lawyer, a policy that may add needlessly to the cost of providing public records.
More than half of 588 randomly selected agencies did not post any information about open-records requests on their website, as required by the Right-to-Know Law. The study recommended the Legislature amend the law to require better training for agency open-records officers and to expand the amount of information about requests that must be easily found on government websites.
The study said public charter schools were most likely to fail to post the required contact information, followed by townships and boroughs. State agencies were deemed the most compliant with the website requirements.