ACTIVATING TRANSPARENCY: All citizens may use law to gain access to records

All citizens may use law to gain access to records

MARK NANCE/Sun-Gazette Scott Miller of Williamsport, is always interested in finding the truth about the city's activities, even when it means using the state's "Right-to-Know requests.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Today marks the start of 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 fourth day to include a report by the Associated Press on new perils threatening open government.)

Media organizations don’t have special privileges when it comes to gaining information from governing bodies — anybody can seek information and documents using the state’s Right-to-Know Law.

With that in mind, the Sun-Gazette recently sampled government agencies ranging from county to township to see what sort of requests have been made in the past year and the volume of requests.

Right-to-Know allows United States citizens, not just state residents, to request certain documents from state and local public agencies, according to the state Office of Open Records.

A Right-to-Know request can be submitted for 911 time response logs, grant applications, contracts involving government agencies, settlement agreements, agency decisions and name, title and salary of public employees and officials.

Although the law was signed in 2008, all documents subject to Right-to-Know are covered regardless of age, according to the office’s website, www.openrecords.pa.gov.

However, information such as Social Security, drivers licenses, and employee and personal phone numbers are not subject to the law. Right-to-Know also excludes personal financial information, spouse names, marital status, beneficiary or depend-

ent information, home addresses of law enforcement and judges, identity of confidential informants, records that identify social service recipients including welfare recipients, and more.

Lycoming County received 62 Right-to-Know requests in 2017 and granted 27 of them in full. One of the most common reasons for denying or partially denying requests was that the county did not have the requested documents.

The most common type of information sought was which organizations received small games of chance licenses, typically requested by non-profits such as the Court Appointed Special Advocate, one of the county’s top requesters, said Marci Hessert, administration manager for the county commissioners.

“Licensees have to donate a certain portion of funds made from small games of chance to not-for-profit charities,” Hessert explained.

Other common requests are for starting salaries and pay ranges for different county positions, most often from other county unions seeking averages as bases for their negotiations, and specific property information, from companies doing environmental reviews or Realtors and mortgage companies seeking prior violations on those properties.

Hessert said the county also receives requests from inmates in the county prison for information about their cases, which sometimes is denied because it requests personal information about attorneys or simply because it is the property of the courthouse, not the county.

In the past, Right-to-Know requests for county budgets from previous years or old Planning Commission meeting minutes led to both documents being published on the county’s website.

County government did not experience the highest volume of requests of the government agencies sampled. Rather, it was the city, which receives about 100 to 120 Right-to-Know requests annually, said City Clerk Janice Frank, who is the city’s public information officer.

Among the most prevalent requests are those regarding properties, particularly rental properties, from lawyers representing clients, tenants, landlords and real estate agents. Many of those landlords live in other states, some as far as Texas and Florida.

Smaller municipalities seem to deal with fewer requests, as shown in Loyalsock Township and South Williamsport Borough.

Loyalsock Township primarily gets Right-to-Know requests from developers and people purchasing land regarding ordinances or histories of violations on particular properties.

“We don’t have any real difficult requests,” said Bill Burdett, township manager. “It’s never been too burdensome.”

South Williamsport had one request in 2017, regarding the source of the funds for the tennis courts. The $273,330 spent on the now completed tennis courts came from two grants, a fundraising group and a donation from the borough, said Michael D. Miller, borough manager.

School districts also receive their share of requests. Williamsport Area School District received 17 in 2017, with the majority coming from out of state.

Simon Campbell, of Yardley, submitted six of the 17 requests. He sought details such as union information from the previous three years, information on school directors and software, names of district officials and employees, copies of emails between board members and employees, and more.

Campbell could not be reached for comment, but his website, www.parighttoknow.com, identifies him as a “citizen activist.”

“Simon supports holding government accountable via the Right-to-Know Law in Pennsylvania,” it says.

Sun-Gazette reporters Mark Maroney, Cara Morningstar and Seth Nolan contributed to this report.