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Lawmaker sees need to fix transparency loopholes in government

Some agencies and state and municipal government offices failed to comply to provide people information they had a right to see, using the excuse of the COVID-19 pandemic as reasoning.

That was one of the takeaways that state Rep. Jeff Wheeland, R-Loyalsock Township, said he had during a recent House of Representatives public hearing on government transparency.

“Moving forward, we need to address that legislatively, and bring clarity to the fact that just because there’s a state of emergency doesn’t mean transparency ends,” Wheeland said.

The live stream of the “House Subcommittee: Government Integrity and Transparency” was held at the Irvis Office earlier this week. State Rep. Seth M. Grove is the committee chair.

Testimony by Liz Wagenseller, executive director, of the Office of Open Records, of a 41% increase in appeals to the Open Records office was evidence to Wheeland that certain municipalities at the local and state level used all sorts of tactics to delay requests for legitamately asked for information and documents.

For example, if the administration appealed a Right to Know Law appeal and it was scheduled for court, the information would then be provided one or two days before the court hearing, Wheeland said.

“Why didn’t they do that from the beginning?” Wheeland asked.

Clearly, he said, it is a tactic used to wear down people who might otherwise give up the request for information appeal and that needs to be fixed, he said.

“That was not the intent of the Right to Know Law,” Wheeland said.

The legislature is getting ready to do a deep dive on the process regarding the Right to Know Law, he said.

He noted loopholes that could be repaired if lawmakers get with stakeholders and fix it.

The hot button issue of improving transparency is likely to be addressed in the coming year.

“I would like to think it is a bipartisan issue,” Wheeland said.

“It can’t continue like this,” he said. “It is not healthy for democracy.”

“We need to have the stakeholders help us to craft legislation to fix the issue but can’t do it hastily or there could be unintended consequences.”

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