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Right to Know issues back in the crosshairs in Pennsylvania: What's the rush?

September 29, 2010 - Bernard A. Oravec
Right to Know issues back in the crosshairs in Pennsylvania: What's the rush?

Here we go again: bills to amend the 2008 Right to Know Law are again on the move in our state capitol, just a few weeks before the November election, and after a one-year lull in any work on open records legislation.  In the Senate, the new law's sponsor, Sen. Pileggi, is now sponsoring Senate Bill 1469, a bill that would exempt volunteer fire and rescue companies, significantly cut back on the records available from government contractors, prevent the public from viewing bills from sewer and other public authorities, and charge a member of the public just to look at a public record. Just introduced on September 20, it moved quickly, and is scheduled for a Senate vote today.  What’s the rush?

Over in the House, numerous amendments are planned for a very negative bill that's also scheduled for a floor vote: House Bill 1667 would eliminate public access to very basic information - dates of birth and home addresses.  These same proposals were vigorously debated by the House and Senate while the new act was going through the legislative process in 2007-08, and defeated.  Amendments filed to the bill would significantly reduce access, exempting signatures, government contractor records and more, from public view. 

As Williamsport Sun-Gazette readers know, dates of birth and addresses are vital identifiers which allow both the public and journalists to distinguish between persons with the same name: they are critical for accurately identifying the subject of an official record.  Social Security numbers are, very properly, excluded from disclosure, and in order to avoid confusion, birth dates and addresses must be available to identify a given individual.

If an individual is accused of a crime, it is critical that that person is accurately identified in his or her community.  Eliminating these identifiers from public view would result in an innocent person being wrongly associated with criminal case records simply because he or she shares the same name as a criminal defendant.

This same information is also widely available online and in voter registration records, which are and must remain public to prevent voter fraud.  Property sale and tax-related records also, by definition, include address and location information.  The smooth progress of common personal finance and commercial transactions depends on the ability to identify all of the participants accurately.

We understand that House Bill 1667 is presented as an opportunity intended to protect individuals from identity theft, but proponents haven't shown that this measure is necessary or appropriate to curb this activity.  House Bill 1667 would directly contradict other Pennsylvania public access laws, including court records, voter registration records, and the Criminal History Information Act, and must be defeated.

The Senate Bill does have positive elements: it would improve access to draft documents deliberated at public meetings, require agencies to provide records in the format requested, expand access to routine, noncriminal inspections, and make it clear that time response logs must include addresses or cross street information.  But like House Bill 1667, it contains some very damaging provisions as well.  SB1469 would significantly reduce access to records of government contractors.  It would also eliminate access to water and sewer authority delinquencies, threaten access to property tax delinquencies, exempt volunteer fire and service companies from the Law, and even allow agencies to charge the public for merely viewing a public record.  Unfortunately, the negatives are too significant to support this bill.

There are good public policy reasons for maintaining access to the information these bills would close down.  Of course it is disappointing to see movement on proposals to scale back the new law, but even more so when we see how few legislative days remain in this session -- about half a dozen, depending on how you count the days when only the House or Senate is scheduled to be in session.  No work has been done in public on open records legislation, with stakeholder groups, within the past year.   What’s the rush?

Hurried meetings and quick votes are not the way to get this done - and certainly not in the best interest of the public.  With the other major issues also under debate, such as the gas extraction tax, just before the break for elections, we urge the legislature not to rush through any proposal that would significantly reduce government accountability.  Ask your legislator to vote "no" on SB1469 and HB1667.  We, at the Williamsport Sun-Gazette are happy to discuss these issues with you, our readers, and we ask for your assistance in communicating this message to your elected officials.
The citizens of Pennsylvania have a right to know what is going on in Harrisburg, in their county and in their local neighborhood. Shutting the doors of public information and locking the people out of the process, is not good policy. We deserve better.

For more information, please contact Bernard A. Oravec, Publisher, Williamsport Sun-Gazette (office) 570-326-1551, boravec@sungazette.com or Deborah L. Musselman, Director, Government Affairs for Pennsylvania Newspaper Association (office) 717-703-3077 or www.pa-newspaper.org

 
 

 

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Blog Photos

Bernard A. Oravec, publisher of the Williamsport Sun-Gazette, offers testimony on behalf of the Pennsylvania newspaper industry, before the Pennsylvania State House Labor Relations Committee on September 23, 2010 during discussions on HB 2515 and HB 19. Both bills focus on child labor law revisions related to the television and motion picture entertainment industry.