Act 77 of 2020: Guidelines Published by the Office of Open Records

NOTE: These guidelines are also available as a PDF.

The Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has challenged public agencies across Pennsylvania to find a way to continue providing access to public records and public meetings during a time when many offices were physically closed and social distancing requirements prevented large gatherings.

Among the many lessons learned are that good communication, always essential in the Right-to-Know Law (“RTKL”) process, is even more necessary during a disaster declaration. Agencies should remember that transparency builds trust, especially in times of crisis. Likewise, requesters should consider whether a records request can wait and be made after the disaster declaration has ended. When a request is made, requesters should consider the circumstances and extend common courtesy and patience to the responding agency. Reasonableness is key. The RTKL works best as a collaborative effort rather than an adversarial process.

It is also useful to remember that the formal RTKL process is not required to request or provide access to records. Informal requests and responses can be more efficient because they come with fewer administrative requirements.

Act 77 of 2020 requires the Office of Open Records (“OOR”) 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.” Accordingly, the following guidelines are hereby published by the OOR.

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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.

Statement on House Bill 2463

Office of Open Records LogoThe following is a statement from Erik Arneson, Executive Director of the Office of Open Records:

House Bill 2463 would require 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.”

If HB 2463 becomes law, any guidelines published by the OOR would protect the health and safety of agency employees.

Additionally, if HB 2463 becomes law, agencies would continue to be able to avail themselves of the existing exemptions in Section 708 of the Right-to-Know Law.

Finally, if HB 2463 becomes law, the OOR would be required to publish the guidelines described above within five days. The OOR is ready to meet that deadline.