Speaking to Students at Robert Morris University

Yesterday, I traveled to Robert Morris University near Pittsburgh to speak to Dr. Philip Harold’s journalism class about Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law and Sunshine Act. (Well, “traveled” is not quite accurate… we used Google Meet.)

It was a great discussion with fantastic questions, and I appreciate the invitation very much.

Here’s the PowerPoint presentation I used:

Robert Morris University – Dr. Philip Harold – April 22, 2020 (PPTX)
Robert Morris University – Dr. Philip Harold – April 22, 2020 (PDF)

If you’re a professor in Pennsylvania and you’d like me to speak to your class, let me know and I’ll do my best to make it happen.

2020 AORO Survey Results

Earlier this year, the Office of Open Records conducted the fourth statewide survey of Agency Open Records Officers (AOROs), the people directly responsible for responding to Right-to-Know Law requests in Pennsylvania.

Some highlights from this year’s survey:

  • We received 1,433 responses from a wide variety of agency types. (Last year, we received 1,054 responses.)
  • Responses were received from agencies in all 67 of Pennsylvania’s counties.
  • Overall, the results were remarkably consistent with last year’s results.
  • Nearly 92% of agencies reported spending less than 5 hours per week responding to RTKL requests. (That includes 62.2% of agencies which spent less than 1 hour per week.)
  • The median number of requests received was 15; the average was 43.4.
  • The majority (53.2%) of requests were “general requests.” That was followed by commercial requests (31.2%), discovery and litigation requests (6.1%), academic research requests (5.4%), news media requests (3.2%), and inmate requests (1.0%).

This PDF contains additional detail about the 2020 Agency Open Records Officer Survey:

2020 AORO Survey Results – April 9, 2020 – PDF

And here’s the underlying data, exported into Excel files in the three ways Survey Monkey allows (all three are ZIP files):

2020_AORO_All_Summary_Data
2020_AORO_All_Responses_Data
2020_AORO_All_Individual_Responses

Thank you to all of the AOROs who took the time to answer this year’s survey. Your participation is extremely valuable.

2019 OOR Annual Report

2019 was the second-busiest year ever for the Office of Open Records. That’s one of the facts included in the OOR’s newly released 2019 Annual Report.

The OOR is required to “annually report on its activities and findings to the Governor and the General Assembly” (Section 1310(a)(9) of the Right-to-Know Law). Typically, the annual report is released during Sunshine Week in early March. This year, issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the release for about a month, but here’s our 2019 Annual Report:

2019 OOR Annual Report – PDF

Highlights from the report include:

  • 2,658 appeals were filed in 2019, making it the second-busiest year on record.
  • The current three-year average is 2,440 appeals; the current five-year average is 2,470.
  • More than half (51.6%) of the appeals docketed in 2019 were filed by everyday citizens.
  • About 75% of the appeals filed in 2019 involved local agencies.
  • The OOR conducted 105 mediations in 2019.
  • The OOR led or participated in 88 training sessions in 2019.
  • The OOR responded to 1,006 RTKL requests in 2019 (a record high), although the vast majority were misdirected.

Previous annual reports are available here.

The RTKL and the Coronavirus (COVID-19)

Office of Open Records LogoThe Office of Open Records has issued the following Advisory regarding Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law and the COVID-19 emergency.

Last updated May 22 at 5:44 p.m.

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The OOR encourages both requesters and agencies to be considerate and patient while working with each other, especially during the current emergency. Good communication between agencies and requesters is always important, but that’s even more true now.

Requesters: Unless you have an urgent need to access records, please do not file any new Right-to-Know Law (RTKL) requests at this time. Additionally, in most cases, inspecting records will not be possible during the emergency; if a request is necessary, please seek copies of records (preferably electronic).

Agencies: Please remember that transparency builds trust, especially in times of crisis.

Advisory regarding RTKL requests:

Agencies should continue processing RTKL requests to the greatest extent of their ability to do so. More specifically, agencies based in counties which have been moved to “yellow” or “green” status pursuant to the latest guidance published by the Pennsylvania Department of Health should process RTKL requests as they would under normal circumstances.

The RTKL includes strict deadlines for agencies receiving a RTKL request. In the event that an agency implements a Continuity of Operations Plan (COOP) or takes similar steps in response to an official emergency declaration (such as the March 6 disaster emergency declaration signed by Governor Wolf), the issue of how RTKL requests will continue to be handled should be part of that plan. The agency should take steps to notify the public of the agency’s plan with regard to RTKL requests. (This can include, for example, a notice on the agency website and an auto-reply from the email address designated to receive RTKL requests.)

If an agency is closed on a given day, that day is not a “business day” and does not count toward the five business days referenced in Section 901 of the RTKL, which governs the time period under which an agency must respond to a request. However, the physical closing of an office does not necessarily constitute a full closure of operations under the RTKL. If necessary during an appeal, each situation will be evaluated on its specific merits.

To the extent that an agency is unable to comply with the RTKL’s strict deadlines due to bona fide issues related to an emergency declaration, 35 Pa.C.S. § 7501(d) allows agencies under a “declaration of disaster emergency” to temporarily suspend the need to comply with certain laws and requirements. (Governor Wolf’s disaster emergency declaration covers the entire commonwealth.) The OOR encourages agencies to consult with their solicitor before invoking 35 Pa.C.S. § 7501(d) as it relates to the RTKL.

Advisory regarding RTKL appeals:

The OOR is committed to protecting due process and ensuring that both requesters and agencies have a full and fair opportunity to meaningfully participate in any RTKL appeal filed with the OOR. To that end, the OOR is now invoking a 30-day extension on all appeals filed.

Any appeal filed electronically (i.e., via the OOR’s online appeal form or via email) will be docketed as usual. Currently, the OOR is only able to receive postal mail on a limited basis. Accordingly, there may be a delay in docketing any appeal filed via postal mail. (Such appeals will not be prejudiced as to timeliness.)

Because every staff member of the OOR is working remotely, we encourage requesters and agencies to use email for all appeal submissions at this time.

The OOR will work to resolve all appeals filed. Based on the OOR’s experience, many agencies and requesters are now able to participate in appeals. As stated above, agencies based in counties which have been moved to “yellow” or “green” status pursuant to the latest guidance published by the Pennsylvania Department of Health should process RTKL requests as they would under normal circumstances. This is also true for RTKL appeals.

However, if either the agency or requester is (or both are) unable, due to the COVID-19 emergency, to meaningfully participate in an appeal under the deadlines set by the OOR, the OOR may take additional extensions. Depending on the specific circumstances, agencies — particularly those based in counties which have been moved to “yellow” or “green” status — which request an extension may be required to provide evidence demonstrating why the appeal cannot proceed as scheduled.

The OOR’s mediation process is continuing for both ongoing and new mediations. Although it may take longer to schedule mediation discussions (many of which are handled via teleconference), the OOR will continue to do so.

We appreciate everyone’s patience in this process.

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If and when events warrant any update to this advice, it will be posted here. Agencies are also welcome to contact the OOR with any questions (using the OOR contact form is the best way to reach us at this time, as we are all working remotely).

Information about COVID-19 is available from the Pennsylvania Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Sunshine Act and the Coronavirus (COVID-19)

Office of Open Records LogoThe Office of Open Records has issued the following Advisory regarding Pennsylvania’s Sunshine Act and the coronavirus (COVID-19).

Last updated May 5 at 10:05 a.m.

***

This advisory relates to all meetings governed by the Sunshine Act; it is not limited to emergency meetings.

As a starting point, it’s key for agencies to remember that transparency builds trust, especially in times of crisis.

Act 15 of 2020 (formerly Senate Bill 841) went into effect on April 20. (Note: The Sunshine Act still applies.)

Chapter 57, Subchapter E, of Act 15 contains provisions regarding local government agency meetings during the COVID-19 emergency. Subchapter E is temporary and its provisions are limited to the duration of the COVID-19 emergency.

Some of the key provisions include:

  • Clarifying that local government agencies are authorized to hold remote meetings during the emergency. A physical quorum (i.e., a quorum all in the same room) is not needed. However, there must be a quorum participating remotely.
  • “To the extent practicable” local government agencies must provide advance notice of all remote meetings including date, time, technology, and how the public can participate. Such notice must be posted on the agency’s website, in a newspaper of general circulation, or both. The OOR also encourages agencies to use social media, email newsletters, and any other method it has available to provide notice.
  • “To the extent practicable,” local government agencies must provide for public participation directly through the teleconferencing or videoconferencing system used to hold the meeting, via email and/or via postal mail. (Ideally, agencies will accommodate all three methods and possibly others.)
  • NOTE: “Practicable” is a much stronger word than “practical.” (Merriam-Webster defines “practicable” as “capable of being put into practice or of being done or accomplished; feasible.” In other words, unless it is actually impossible to do so, it must be done. This means that advance notice and public participation are essentially required.)
  • If an emergency meeting (i.e., a meeting called without public notice) related to COVID-19 takes places, the minutes of that emergency meeting must be made available within 20 days.

Note that the above provisions of Act 15 do not apply to school entities. (This does not mean that school entities cannot hold remote meetings — they can, subject to the Sunshine Act and other relevant laws. Any school entity taking that step must provide a reasonably accessible method for the public to participate and comment pursuant to Section 710.1 of the Sunshine Act. That method should be clearly explained to the public in advance of and during the meeting.)

Act 15 includes other provisions relevant to local government agencies and school entities, and the OOR encourages consultation with solicitors regarding the entire law.

In addition to the provisions of Act 15, the Office of Open Records strongly recommends that any agency holding a remote meeting record the meeting and proactively make the recording available (preferably online) so that a full and complete record of the meeting is easily accessible by the public.

To the extent that agenda items can be delayed until in-person meetings can resume, it’s a good idea to do so.

Here’s the March 6 disaster emergency declaration signed by Governor Wolf and information about the declaration.

The Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association has also issued guidance related to the Sunshine Act, which can be read here (PDF).

If and when events warrant any update to this advice, it will be posted here.

Agencies, solicitors, and members of the public with any questions are welcome to contact the OOR. Using the OOR contact form is the best way to reach us at this time, as we are all working remotely.

Information about the coronavirus (COVID-19) is available from the Pennsylvania Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Speaking to Students at Drexel University

Earlier today, I visited Drexel University in Philadelphia to speak to Dr. Ronald Bishop’s journalism class about Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law.

It was a great discussion, and I appreciate the invitation very much.

Here’s the PowerPoint presentation I used:

Drexel University – Dr. Ronald Bishop – March 3, 2020 (PPTX)
Drexel University – Dr. Ronald Bishop – March 3, 2020 (PDF)

If you’re a professor in Pennsylvania and you’d like me to speak to your class, let me know and I’ll do my best to make it happen.