Open records audit shows improvement since start of reforms

The latest audit of the performance of public entities regarding Pennsylvania’s open records law yielded some heartening results.

The survey was conducted by more than 100 employees of 21 newspapers and is the third conducted since landmark changes reformed the Open Records Law eight years ago.

While the survey found instances in which government offices didn’t apply the Right-to-Know Law uniformly and sometimes scrubbed critical details from records requests, there was a clear uptick in the percentage of times that show quick responses to requests.

About half of the 526 requests were resolved when agencies determined they had no such records. Of the remaining 259, nearly 200 resulted in a record being turned over. The remainder were rejected, ignored or otherwise failed to lead to records being turned over.

The most glaring problem, it appears, rests with police dash camera footage, as police agencies in 10 of 25 requests cited state laws that keep criminal investigative records confidential. Five departments agreed to disclose selected portions, but only once captured the heart of the incident.

Full availability of police dash cam video would go a long way toward improving public trust of local law enforcement. It also would underline for the public just how difficult the job of a police officer is and how well that job is done every day. Making police dash cam video footage fully available is good for the public and good for police at a time when public trust between the two needs improvement. Another aspect of the public records law that needs improving is full disclosure of public employee severance agreements. These agreements are being paid for with public funds and, as such, should be an unchallenged matter of full disclosure.

The full message of the survey showed a much improved understanding and attitude about open records disclosure from public entities. We have seen that firsthand with the Lycoming County decision to allow a listing of countywide police activities daily in recent months. Actions such as these improve public trust. Remember, the Open Records Law may show itself most often in a struggle between media and government entities, but the law exists first and foremost for the public.