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 August 12, 2020, 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 January 7, 2021, at 9:32 a.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 may not apply to school entities, and the OOR encourages school entities to consult their solicitors on this point. (See McGrath v. Board of School Directors of the City of Scranton and School District of the City of Scranton, Lackawanna County CCP No. 20 CV 3698.) 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.

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.

Speaking to Students at Temple University

Yesterday afternoon, I visited Temple University in Philadelphia to speak to Dr. Logan Molyneux’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:

Temple University – Dr. Logan Molyneux – Feb. 27, 2020 (PPTX)
Temple University – Dr. Logan Molyneux – Feb. 27, 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.

Speaking to Students at Upland Country Day School

On Wednesday morning, I visited Upland Country Day School in Kennett Square to speak to two classes (9th grade and 7th grade) about the importance of government transparency and how Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law works.

Teacher Judson Morris led the discussions, and I really appreciate the invitation to return to a school I graduated from in 1985. It was fantastic to be back on campus.

Here’s the PowerPoint presentation I used:

Upland Country Day School – Mr. Judson Morris – Feb. 26, 2020 (PPTX)
Upland Country Day School – Mr. Judson Morris – Feb. 26, 2020 (PDF)

If you’re a teacher or 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.

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.

Speaking to Students at Dickinson College

Yesterday afternoon, I visited Dickinson College in Carlisle to speak to Prof. Amy Worden’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:

Dickinson College – Prof. Amy Worden – Feb. 24, 2020 (PPTX)
Dickinson College – Prof. Amy Worden – Feb. 24, 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.