Process for Writing Guidelines Pursuant to HB 2463

Office of Open Records LogoHouse Bill 2463, which will officially be assigned an act number soon, is now law.

This law requires the Office of Open Records 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.”

The OOR plans to publish the guidelines on Friday, July 31.

Between now (Monday, July 27, at 9:30 a.m.) and Wednesday, July 29, at 1:00 p.m., the OOR is accepting public comment on the guidelines. Comments can be directed to the OOR via the contact page on our website or via email, openrecords@pa.gov.

Please note that all submitted comments will be public records.

Added on July 28, 2020: HB 2463 is now Act 77 of 2020.

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 August 12 at 12:08 p.m.

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All counties are in “yellow” or “green” status pursuant to the latest guidance published by the Pennsylvania Department of Health. Accordingly, all agencies should process RTKL requests as they would under normal circumstances.

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.

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

Advisory regarding RTKL requests:

As of June 5, 2020, all counties are in “yellow” or “green” status pursuant to the latest guidance published by the Pennsylvania Department of Health. Accordingly, all agencies should process RTKL requests as they would under normal circumstances.

Advisory regarding RTKL appeals:

The OOR is committed to protecting due process, ensuring that all parties have a full and fair opportunity to meaningfully participate in any RTKL appeal filed with the OOR, and ensuring a proper review of all submissions. To that end, the OOR may invoke reasonable extensions on a case-by-case basis.

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 slight 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.

As stated above, all counties in “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.

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 requesting 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 June 12 at 6:12 p.m.

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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.

NOTE: On June 3, Gov. Wolf extended the emergency declaration for an additional 90 days. Subsequently, the General Assembly passed HR 836 to terminate the emergency declaration. The issue is now pending before the Commonwealth Court and the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. The view of the OOR is that the provisions of Act 15 which are limited to the duration of the COVID-19 emergency remain in effect while this case is pending in court.

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.

OOR Updates Standard RTKL Request Form

Office of Open Records LogoThe Office of Open Records has updated the Standard Right-to-Know Law Request Form.

(Under Section 505 of the Right-to-Know Law, all Commonwealth and local agencies are required to accept the OOR’s Standard RTKL Request Form.)

The new Standard RTKL Request Form includes a series of relatively minor changes, the most notable of which is that if the requester does not make a choice regarding the format of copies being sought, there is now a default (printed copies). Previously, there was no default; that led to confusion in a few cases.

All previous Standard RTKL Request Forms remain valid to use, but it’s always best to use the most current version when submitting a RTKL request.

The Standard RTKL Request Form is available in two formats: PDF and Word.

OOR Webinar Schedule for Sunshine Week 2020

Office of Open Records LogoContinuing a tradition that began last year, the Office of Open Records is once again planning a series of webinars for Sunshine Week 2020 with topics related to Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law and Sunshine Act.

The OOR’s Sunshine Week 2020 webinar series currently looks like this:

March 16 (Monday)
RTKL Basics for Agency Open Records Officers
with OOR Director of Training & Outreach George Spiess

March 17 (Tuesday)
Records Retention
with Archivist Tyler Stump of the Pennsylvania State Archives

March 18 (Wednesday)
Writing an Effective RTKL Request
with OOR Executive Director Erik Arneson

March 19 (Thursday)
Pennsylvania’s Sunshine Act
with OOR Director of Training & Outreach George Spiess

March 20 (Friday)
Changes to the OOR Docketing System
with OOR General Counsel Delene Lantz-Johnson

All of the webinars will begin at 10 a.m. and will include plenty of time for questions. Mark your calendar to join us!

For more details, check the OOR’s training calendar a little closer to Sunshine Week.

Agencies Should Provide Evidence to the OOR

Office of Open Records LogoThe Commonwealth Court has consistently frowned on agencies trying to submit new evidence (i.e., evidence not provided to the Office of Open Records) during a Right-to-Know Law appeal.

As a general rule, Courts of Common Pleas have been more accepting of that practice. However, Courts of Common Pleas are not required to accept such evidence. In one recent case (OOR Dkt. No.: AP 2019-1228), Judge Richard K. Renn of York County included some commentary about the practice in his order.

Judge Renn wrote: “[W]e have noticed a disturbing trend in recent cases involving [York] County that the County submits additional materials to this Court for consideration during the review de novo process which it did not make available to the OOR. The Commonwealth Court recently commented on this practice, noting that ‘[l]ack of evidence, when the parties and participants had a full opportunity to submit evidence to the fact-finder, is not a valid reason for supplementing the record.’ Mission Pa., LLC v. McKelvey, 212 A.3d 119 (Pa. 2019).”

After further quoting from McKelvey, Judge Renn continued: “Indeed, one might conclude that the County was ‘sandbagging’ the OOR appeal process since no explanation was given for the recent submission of the [new evidence]. … We are not prepared at this time to draw that conclusion in the context of this case.”

I think Judge Renn’s point is crystal clear (and 100 percent correct): Absent some extremely unusual circumstance, agencies should submit all of the evidence they have in a RTKL case while that case is being heard by the Office of Open Records. In fact, the OOR regularly extends submission deadlines (and sometimes ask requesters to grant an extension of time to consider the case) to ensure that the record is fully developed before a final determination is issued.

Judge Renn’s complete order is here.

The Commonwealth Court decision in Mission Pa., LLC v. McKelvey is here.

Article for Pennsylvania County News

The County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania recently asked me to contribute an article to the Fall 2019 issue of Pennsylvania County News, which I was happy to do.

Here’s the complete text of that article.

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Balancing the public’s right to know with confidentiality laws and privacy interests

Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law (RTKL) presumes that all government records are available to the public – but it also recognizes that there are times records must be shielded to comply with confidentiality laws, to respect various privileges, and to protect legitimate privacy interests.

In our training sessions, the Office of Open Records (OOR) often points out that the RTKL is not itself a confidentiality law. In other words, the RTKL does not require agencies to withhold any records. Instead, it allows agencies to withhold records when certain conditions apply. (For example, records can be withheld if their disclosure would endanger public safety, reveal police notes about an investigation, or identify an individual receiving social services.)

But there are laws which require confidentiality, and those laws must be followed.
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