Ruling may make open records process more complex, costly

Execution of Pennsylvania’s open records law just got more complex.

And more costly.

And more time-consuming.

Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court has endorsed wide authority for state courts to determine whether government records should be released publicly.

The ruling, in a matter involving a Pittsburgh tribune-Review reporter who sought information about federal grant money spent by the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, seems to reduce the role of the state’s Office of Open Records.

That office was created when the Right-to-Know Law was overhauled five years ago.

The court ruled that the office’s decisions would not be confined to the existing records but can be supplemented.

The ruling gives parties the option of accepting the office’s rulings or starting all over in the court system with Commonwealth Court appeals, which could involve hearings, taking evidence or issuing written decisions. That takes time. And time is money.

We think the best solution would be to put more might in the Office of Open Records and an appeal process administered through that office. After all, the office was created to be the central place for right-to-know matters. Our impression was that the courts would be kept out of the process as much as possible by creation of the Office of Open Records.

Making the courts more available just complicates the process of handling Right-to-Know matters and seems to weaken the Office of Open Records.

It also seems to encourage a battle from public offices that want to be difficult about releasing public records. The knowledge that the appeal could wind up going through a protracted court process encourages conflict, in our view.

Of course, all of this is moot if public officials live up to the spirit of the law, which is to make their offices as transparent as possible by giving to the public and their media representatives any information that falls under the Right-to-Know Law.

And without a hassle.