MAKING A STRONGER LAW: Legislation would refine Right-to-Know

Legislation would refine Right-to-Know

The main hallway near the entrance of the new Montoursville Area High School. KAREN VIBERT-KENNEDY/Sun-Gazette

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is Sunshine Week. Sunshine Week is about the right of everybody to know what government is doing, how it is doing it and why it is doing it. The Sun-Gazette this week will take a closer look at the state’s Right-to-Know Law through a three-day series. We’ll extend the series a few more days to include Sunshine Week reports by the Associated Press.)

Nearly two dozen pieces of legislation have been introduced in the past two years by state lawmakers that address Right-to-Know Law issues.

But perhaps no bill is more comprehensive than one sponsored by state Sen. John P. Blake, D-Scranton.

Known as the Strengthening the Open Records Law, it was sponsored by former state Sen. Dominic Pileggi.

It is composed of 18 provisions addressing issues ranging from expanding the definition of what agencies are covered under the Right-to-Know Law to ensuring certain agency information such as bank account numbers cannot be made public.

The bill, presently tied up in committee, could well come up for a vote this year, according to Blake.

Various stakeholders, he said, support the legislation.

“We believe there are things we have learned through the years,” Blake said. “I have since been involved in refining it.”

Some of the specifics of the bill include a provision for ensuring prison inmates have access to records related to themselves regarding their incarceration. However, it would also limit their number of requests.

Appeals by inmates, Blake noted, account for about 40 percent of all appeals to the Office of Open Records.

“We don’t mind appeals coming from inmates,” he said. “We want to be reasonable with what we release because it does put burdens on people who consider requests.”

Another provision calls for charging reasonable fees for processing commercial requests for records.

“We don’t prescribe what these fees would be,” he said.

The bill also calls for civil penalties of up to $500 per day if

an agency or public official fails to comply with an order under the Right-to-Know Law.

“I believe there is no fee right now,” he said.

The bill would require an agency to provide a public record upon request if it exists in a specific computer file format.

In addition, agencies would be required to maintain all records involved in a Right-to-Know request from the response time until all related appeals are exhausted.

Other provisions of the law include:

• Adding campus police to the definition of location agency so they are covered the same as municipal police departments.

• Clarifying that certain tax forms are personal financial information and not made public. Other information not to be made public would include an agency’s bank account numbers, bank routing numbers, credit card numbers, or passwords.

• Clarifying that volunteer emergency response organizations are not “agencies” under the Right-to-Know Law.

Another bill sponsored by Blake would bring greater transparency to state-related universities — Penn State, Pittsburgh, Temple, and Lincoln.

The legislation, which remains in committee, would bring greater disclosure of personnel salary information. It also would provide access to budgetary and contract information in “user-friendly, searchable online databases.”

The state is among just three in the U.S. that exempts such universities from open records provisions.

Blake said the bill is one that actually has received support from the officials of the educational institutions it targets.

“The biggest concern they had is with salary postings,” he said. “They are worried about other research institutions pilfering their talent.”

Blake said he remains optimistic that this could be the year when Right-to-Know laws are seriously considered by lawmakers.

“We have been in a three-year budget battle down here (in Harrisburg),” he said. “That has crowded out bills of merit.”