An Open Letter to the Staff at the OOR

Dear Angie, Bina, Blake, Charles, Delene, Dylan, Erin, Faith, George, Janelle, Jill, Jordan, Josh, Joy, Kelly, Kyle, Maggie, Michele, Nathan, and Ryan,

Thank you.

It has been the privilege of a lifetime to work with you over the past six years. I cannot imagine a better team.

Over that time, the OOR has resolved nearly 15,000 Right-to-Know Law appeals, including hundreds of successful mediations. We have hosted or participated in nearly 400 training sessions. We have answered many thousands of inquiries from agencies, the media, and regular citizens. We have overhauled the OOR website, created an entirely new docketing system, and developed many new resources for both agencies and requesters.

In short, we have done exactly what the Office of Open Records was intended to do. I know that Senator Pileggi (some call him Judge Pileggi now, but he will always be Senator Pileggi to me) is proud of what we have done, and to me that is the greatest marker of our success.

Back in 2007 and 2008, when the bill that would become the Right-to-Know Law was working its way through the General Assembly (with tremendous bipartisan support), I never considered the possibility of being the executive director of the OOR. When Governor Corbett appointed me to this position, a decision for which I will be forever grateful, I wasn’t sure that I was the right choice.

Looking back, I hope I’ve done a pretty good job – but I know that all of you have done an amazing job.

Leaving the OOR is bittersweet, and a piece of my heart will always live there. But the office couldn’t be in better hands. You are all good and decent people, and smart and talented professionals. Most importantly, you all have integrity.

I love you all like family, and I very much hope we have the opportunity to work together again in the future. Thank you for everything.

Cheers,
Erik

Letter to Governor Wolf

Earlier today, I sent the following letter to Gov. Tom Wolf.

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January 11, 2021

The Honorable Tom Wolf
Governor
Commonwealth of Pennsylvania
508 Main Capitol Building
Harrisburg, PA 17120

Re: Office of Open Records

Dear Governor Wolf,

Thank you for the tremendous support you and your administration have provided to the Office of Open Records during my time as executive director.

The OOR is a unique agency, sui generis as they say, and it serves an important purpose: Ensuring that the work of government agencies is available to the public so that the public can hold its government accountable. Transparency really does breed trust.

Early in my tenure, I suspect a few people wondered what the relationship would be like between the OOR and your administration. I wondered myself. But I’m pleased to say that the relationship was excellent. In fact, I couldn’t have asked for a better working relationship.

Most significantly, you and your administration have allowed the OOR to operate with true independence, and all Pennsylvanians should be thankful for that. In terms of the Right-to-Know Law, nothing is more important than the OOR’s independence. That independence ensures that the OOR can issue fair and impartial decisions, and – just as importantly – it is critical to giving the public confidence that the OOR’s decisions are fair and impartial. Other states have seen the alternative, and it’s not good.

On a more practical level, the team at the Department of Community and Economic Development, led by Secretary Dennis Davin, has provided tremendous support to the OOR. The same is true of the Department of General Services, the Office of Administration, PennDOT, the Office of the Budget, and every agency we worked with during the past six years. Whatever the OOR needed, big or small, your administration came through. In particular, I would like to thank your Deputy Chief of Staff Eric Hagarty.

I would be remiss if I did not also highlight the amazing support provided by the General Assembly over the past six years. The Senate and the House, Republicans and Democrats, leadership and rank-and-file, have all been there. Every year in the budget process, your proposals treated the OOR fairly. In the years when additional funding was needed, the legislature stepped up and provided it. The Pennsylvania General Assembly deserves a lot of credit for its support of the OOR and the Right-to-Know Law.

The next person to hold this position is, in my view, the luckiest person in Pennsylvania. Their top priority (beyond a continued focus on the OOR’s independence) should be keeping the entire OOR staff intact. I can’t say enough good things about the team at the OOR. They make the job of the executive director easy.

As much as I would have loved to be reappointed to the OOR, I consider myself extremely fortunate to have been there for the time that I was. And I very much look forward to working with Treasurer-elect Stacy Garrity to advance issues of transparency in new ways.

Again, thank you for the respect and professionalism you and your entire staff have afforded the OOR over the past six years.

Sincerely,
Erik Arneson

New Citizens’ Guide to the RTKL and Sunshine Act

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The OOR’s Citizens’ Guide to the Right-to-Know Law and Sunshine Act is an introduction to these two laws, both of which promote government transparency.

The Citizens’ Guide has been completely rewritten and the new version is available now.

The RTKL, also known as the open records law, grants access to public records. The Sunshine Act, also known as the open meetings law, ensures access to public meetings.

The Citizens’ Guide, a 12-page PDF, includes sections on how to file a request, agencies subject to the RTKL, fees under the RTKL, how to file an appeal, and more.

2 New Draft Sample Forms for Public Comment

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The Office of Open Records has posted two new draft sample forms and is seeking public comment on both.

The Right-to-Know Law and other statutes make various records public, including certain records from law enforcement agencies and county coroners. The OOR often dockets appeals involving these types of records. In an effort to help these agencies provide information under the RTKL, and to help requesters across the state receive more uniform responses, the OOR has prepared these two sample forms.

Law enforcement agencies and county coroners would not be required to use the forms, but doing so could help reduce the workload related to responding to RTKL requests. (These forms do not represent the totality of information available from these agencies, but they do represent some of the most commonly requested information.)

Public comment on the draft forms will be accepted through Monday, Feb. 8, 2021.

The best way to comment is via email to openrecords@pa.gov or by using the form available on the Contact page at the OOR website. Comments can also be submitted via postal mail (Office of Open Records, 333 Market Street, 16th Floor, Harrisburg, PA 17101-2234) and fax (717-425-5343).

OOR to Post Final Determinations from District Attorneys

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Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law gives county District Attorneys the responsibility of appointing an appeals officer to decide RTKL appeals “relating to access to criminal investigative records in possession of a local agency of that county.”

District Attorneys have been doing this since the RTKL went into effect at the start of 2009. Until now, there has been no effort to provide a central location where all of those decisions can be found.

Yesterday, the Office of Open Records sent letters to all 67 District Attorneys requesting that they forward to the OOR copies of any Final Determinations issued by their offices — including past and future Final Determinations — so that they can be posted to a new page on the OOR website.

We believe this new page will be a tremendous resource for agencies, requesters, and District Attorney appeals officers. The target date for making the page go live is Monday, Feb. 1.

Court Filings Update – New Email Newsletter

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I’m exited to announce that the Office of Open Records will soon start sending a new email newsletter called Court Filings Update — and you you can sign up for it now.

The newsletter will be sent regularly, generally multiple times each week, and it will include information about appeals and associated documents filed in the Courts of Common Pleas, the Commonwealth Court, and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

We expect to send the first Court Filings Update newsletter by the end of March, hopefully sooner.

The Court Filings Update newsletter will be sent separately from the OOR’s Daily Final Determinations Update (which lists and links to recent Final Determination issued by the OOR) and the OOR’s general email newsletter.

You can manage your subscriptions to all three newsletters here.

Pageviews on OOR Blog Surged in 2020

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The first post was made to this Office of Open Records blog on June 25, 2015. Since then, as executive director of the OOR, I’ve posted here about a wide variety of topics related to the OOR, court decisions, legislation, RTKL training resources, and much more.

Pageviews on this blog have been relatively consistent through the years:

  • 5,718 in 2015
  • 17,526 in 2016
  • 9,860 in 2017
  • 9,608 in 2018
  • 10,163 in 2019

In 2020, however, pageviews surged — to 42,280.

The single biggest reason for that increase is the fact that this blog is where we posted the official OOR COVID-19 advisories regarding the Right-to-Know Law and the Sunshine Act. (Posting the advisories here made it easier to edit them as events warranted.)

The pages on this blog with the most views in 2020 were:

One thing this data makes very clear is that this blog has become an important part of keeping the public informed about issues related to the RTKL, the Sunshine Act, and government transparency.

NOTE: All data for 2020 is through and including Dec. 31, 2020.

Court Orders Sunshine Act Training

Open records_logo stackedThe Court of Common Pleas in Westmoreland County recently ordered officials from the City of Monessen to attend Sunshine Act training provided by the Office of Open Records.

In the opinion and order, Judge Harry F. Smail, Jr., discussed a public meeting held by the City at which “there was absolutely no opportunity for public comment on the motions to fire the city solicitor, to hire the new city solicitor, to terminate the city administrator, to hire the new city administrator, to restrict access to city cameras, to rescind a Sewage Authority Board appointment and to advertise for the vacancy on the Sewage Authority Board.”

Those actions, Judge Smail said, “are facially apparent violations of Section 710.1(a) of the Sunshine Act.”

As a result, Judge Smail ordered — and we believe this is a first-of-its-kind order in Pennsylvania — that “Defendants Councilmembers of the City of Monessen and Defendant Mayor Matt Shorraw … attend a Sunshine Act training through the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records, to be scheduled … within thirty (30) days of the date of this Order of Court.”

The order was dated Dec. 11, and the OOR has been contacted by the City of Monessen to schedule the mandatory training session.

If you’d like to schedule training with the OOR, mandatory or otherwise, take a look at our training calendar and then contact us. We provide training on the Sunshine Act and the Right-to-Know Law.

Federal Court Decision (FOIA) on Information in Databases

Open records_logo stackedEarlier this month, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit published an interesting decision related to accessing information in government databases.

The decision, in the case of The Center for Investigative Reporting v. United State Department of Justice, held that “the use of a query to search for and extract a particular arrangement or subset of existing data from the [Firearms Tracing System] database [maintained by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives] does not require the creation of a ‘new’ agency record under [the federal Freedom of Information Act].”

The court’s decision contains a lot of good discussion about this important issue, mostly starting on page 37, such as: “[I]f running a search across these databases necessarily amounts to the creation of a new record, much government information will become forever inaccessible under FOIA.”

Importantly, the decision is in line with existing Pennsylvania case law regarding the Right-to-Know Law.

For example, in Gingrich v. Game Commission, the Commonwealth Court held: “Providing data from an agency database does not constitute creating a record.” And in Department of Environmental Protection v. Cole, the Commonwealth Court held: “An agency can be required to draw information from a database.”

In our training sessions for requesters, the Office of Open Records often discusses this issue. You can find more about the RTKL and information in government databases on slides 29 to 32 of this presentation, and you can listen to me discuss the issue here.