The Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has challenged public agencies across Pennsylvania to find a way to continue providing access to public records and public meetings during a time when many offices were physically closed and social distancing requirements prevented large gatherings.
Among the many lessons learned are that good communication, always essential in the Right-to-Know Law (“RTKL”) process, is even more necessary during a disaster declaration. Agencies should remember that transparency builds trust, especially in times of crisis. Likewise, requesters should consider whether a records request can wait and be made after the disaster declaration has ended. When a request is made, requesters should consider the circumstances and extend common courtesy and patience to the responding agency. Reasonableness is key. The RTKL works best as a collaborative effort rather than an adversarial process.
It is also useful to remember that the formal RTKL process is not required to request or provide access to records. Informal requests and responses can be more efficient because they come with fewer administrative requirements.
Act 77 of 2020 requires the Office of Open Records (“OOR”) to “publish guidelines for a Commonwealth agency specifying how the Commonwealth agency is required to respond to a request for records made during a disaster declaration when the Governor has ordered the Commonwealth agency to close the Commonwealth agency’s physical location.”
Those guidelines must be published “[n]o later than five days after the effective date of this section.” Accordingly, the following guidelines are hereby published by the OOR.