On June 23, 2022, the OOR testified at a Senate State Government Committee hearing regarding legislation that would amend the Right-to-Know Law.
The report released today by the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee entitled “Costs to Implement the Right-to-Know Law” includes eight recommendations, four for the General Assembly and four for the OOR.
I support all eight recommendations (one, as noted below, with some reservations). In more detail:
LBFC Recommendations for the General Assembly
Recommendation: Require agencies to provide AORO contact information to include name, telephone number, email address, and physical address to the OOR annually or whenever there is a change in the information.
Response: The OOR currently collects this information on a very informal basis. However, a statutory mandate for agencies to provide AORO contact information to the OOR, combined with technological improvements already in development (i.e., an online AORO database), would allow us to proceed in a far more efficient manner.
Recommendation: Require agencies to prominently post required RTKL information on their websites and specifically define AORO contact information to include the name, telephone number, email address, and physical address of the AORO.
Response: Like LBFC, the OOR has found that it can sometimes be difficult or impossible to locate AORO information on an agency website. In addition to supporting a new statutory requirement that the information be “prominently” posted, the OOR will continue to emphasize this as a best practice in our training.
I was honored to present testimony to the committee:
Others who testified or provided written testimony to the committee include:
- ACLU of Pennsylvania
- Bloomsburg University Foundation
- Coalition for Sensible Public Records Access
- Common Cause Pennsylvania
- County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania
- East Stroudsburg University Foundation
- Foundation for IUP
- Lincoln University Parents Association
- Lock Haven University Foundation
- Pennsylvania Bar Association
- Pennsylvania Foundations Association
- Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association
- Pennsylvania Prison Society
- Pennsylvania School Boards Association
- Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors
- Pennsylvania State Association of Boroughs
- Pennsylvania State Education Association
- Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education
- Simon Campbell, Citizen Requester
- State-Related Universities (Temple, Pitt, Penn State, and Lincoln)
- Thomson Reuters
- West Chester University Foundation
Earlier today, I took part in a panel discussion at an event known as Lobbypalooza, hosted by the Pennsylvania Association for Government Relations.
The panel (topic: Open Records) also included Melissa Melewsky, Media Law Counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, and Scott Coburn, General Counsel for the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors.
The presentation we used focused mainly on Senate Bill 411, legislation which would amend the Right-to-Know Law and which is making its way through the General Assembly. I wrote more about SB 411 here, and here’s the presentation we used at today’s PAGR event:
Among the changes SB 411 would make:
- Dramatically increase the amount of financial and statistical information available from the four state-related universities (Temple, Penn State, Pitt, and Lincoln) by requiring these universities to establish freely accessible online databases. (This provision is based on Senate Bill 412, sponsored by Senator John Blake.)
- Apply the RTKL to campus police departments with arrest powers the same as it applies to municipal police departments.
- Establish that the noncriminal investigative exception does not apply to final safety inspection reports.
- Simplify the request process by allowing requests to be sent to the AORO or to the agency’s administrative office.
- Simplify the process of filing an appeal with the OOR.
- Allow agencies to use a different fee schedule for commercial requests and allow those fees to be appealed to the OOR to ensure they’re reasonable.
- Establish 11 categories of records available to inmates, ensuring they can access information related to their case and incarceration but limiting the burden inmate requests have placed on agencies and the OOR.
- Define the term “time response log” to clarify what information related to emergency dispatches is available for public inspection.
- Clarify that records presented to a quorum for deliberation at a public meeting which are not otherwise exempt are public records, regardless of whether a vote occurs at the meeting.
- Clarify that economic development authorities and industrial development authorities are covered by the RTKL.
- Clarify that volunteer fire companies and volunteer ambulance companies are not covered by the RTKL except to the extent that they have a contract with a local agency.
- Prevent parties to litigation from using the RTKL to circumvent the discovery process, when the litigation involves a pending civil action to which the agency is a party.
- Establish additional protections on personal financial information while continuing to make aggregated data available for public inspection.
- Attempt to address the issues surrounding home addresses of agency employees, also the subject of ongoing litigation now before the state Supreme Court.
- Require agencies to register their Agency Open Records Officers (AOROs) with the Office of Open Records (OOR), which makes a statewide database of AOROs available on its website.
- Allow the OOR to extend the timeline for issuing a final determination when cases are particularly complex or require in camera review of documents.
- Additional procedural improvements in the OOR appeals process.
As I told Kate Giammarise of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, SB 411 will improve the Right-to-Know Law for both requesters and agencies. There are some legitimate concerns about a few provisions, but I believe those concerns can be addressed as the bill progresses.
The bill now moves to the House of Representatives for consideration.
On the new Open Records in Pennsylvania podcast, I interviewed Senator Dominic Pileggi, the author of Pennsylvania’s current Right-to-Know Law.
Senator Pileggi and I talked about how he thinks the law has worked since being enacted in early 2008, his thoughts on possible amendments (including Senate Bill 411), and more.
If there’s something you’d like to hear on a future episode, let me know. Share your thoughts in the comments below, tweet to @ErikOpenRecords or @OpenRecordsPA, or send an email to openrecords (at) pa (dot) gov.
Theme music by Pennsylvania’s own John Austin.
This bill will make a number of improvements to the law. This cosponsorship memo, circulated by Sen. Pileggi, includes a good summary.
SB 411 was amended to include, essentially, the contents of Senate Bill 412 (sponsored by Sen. John Blake), which will make much more information from Pennsylvania’s four state-related universities — Temple (as a Temple grad, I always list the Owls first), Penn State, Pitt, and Lincoln — easily accessible online. A technical amendment was also adopted.
This is the first step in the legislative process for SB 411, so there’s a long road ahead. It’s almost certain that additional amendments will be considered in the future.