MUNCY - Some people have worried that Muncy Borough's new property maintenance code will infringe upon the private rights of its citizens, while others believe it will help borough officials maintain safety and order by setting clear guidelines for buildings.
However, when asked to elaborate on the new code, or justify their positions, many borough officials were reluctant to talk to the Sun-Gazette. In fact, the newspaper had to file an open records request just to find out how each council member voted.
In a 4-3 vote earlier this month, Muncy Borough Council adopted the international property maintenance code. Voting for the adoption were Matilda Noviello, Dana Bertin, Jon Ort and Linda Stein. Voting against were Richard Baker, Galen Betzer and Elaine McAleer.
But when the Sun-Gazette attempted to follow up on the matter, the borough manager declined to provide information, including how each council member voted. So, in keeping with the state's open records law, the Sun-Gazette filed a right-to-know request and was presented with a copy of the code's eight chapters and how each council member voted.
The responsibility is on the municipality to put forth public information, said Melissa Melewsky, of the Media Law Council for the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association.
"There is nothing that requires that you should have to fill out a right-to-know act to have access to public information. Agencies should be pushing this information on its citizens, not holding it back," she said.
She said state laws protect the rights of citizens by ensuring that they have access to public records.
"Public records do not belong to the government; they belong to the people," Melewsky explained.
"Public access is the only way citizens can understand what their elected officials are doing and hold them accountable for their actions. Without public access, there's no accountability, and that makes for a poor representative government."
Borough solicitor Wilfred Knecht said the updated code will provide Muncy with a standard, and allows authorities to deal with the maintenance of buildings both inside and out.
"Around 15 years ago, a lot of municipalities didn't have an in-depth ordinance to deal with property maintenance. This code was created and made available for various municipalities to approve, via ordinance," Knecht said.
The code, which deals with topics such as electric, lighting and ventilation requirements, plumbing and fire safety, is updated every few years. The council has adopted the most recent edition, published in 2012.
Baker, who did not support the adoption, told the Sun-Gazette he was concerned that the code infringes upon the rights of private citizens.
"I like the part that regulates the exterior of structures. I don't have a problem with that," he said.
"But this code covers electric, plumbing, the whole thing. I don't think we, as councils, have the right to interfere with the inside of somebody's home," he added.
Baker likened the code to "Big Brother."
"We don't need, as a council, to know what's going on inside your house. That's not our business," he added.
On the other side, Ort, who voted for the adoption, believes the code will allow authorities to better enforce building standards.
"This is a good thing for the community. We needed a uniform code that would be easier to enforce, because of problems we've had in the past," Ort said.
He added that Chief Richard Sutton has tried to enforce previous building codes and "remedy situations that have come up in the past," but his enforcement did not stand up in court under the old code.
"I think it's long overdue. Almost every other community has adopted it and had great success," Ort added.
When asked, Stein and Noviello both declined comment. Repeated calls to McAleer, Bertin and Betzer were not returned.