In 2007, the state Legislature passed an open records law that was a huge improvement on its outdated predecessor, and its utility has been proven repeatedly as citizens gained access to previously hidden information and the Office of Open Records created by the law handled more than 8,000 appeals.
The law never was perfect, however, and with five years of implementation and experience as a guide, it’s time for fine tuning.
Multiple bills have been introduced that address the issue of transparency in records, and the ones that have received the most attention would extend the provisions of the law to the four state related institutions: Penn State, the University of Pittsburgh, Temple and Lincoln. That is a necessary change that will correct a fundamental error — the state-related schools, which receive sizable allocations of taxpayer dollars each year, never should have been excluded. The law should apply to them as it does to the 14 state-owned universities and countless other government agencies and departments.
Lawmakers should not hesitate to make that change and, when they do, they should provide adequate funding and staff for the records office, which expects far more work as a result.
Equally important is a measure, introduced by Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, that attempts to clean up some oversights and revise other provisions of the law. Not all of them are good moves, so we hope Mr. Pileggi meant it when he said this was a work-in-progress open to revision.
Here’s what is good in the bill. It explicitly makes the Office of Open Records an independent one, essential for an agency that deals with challenges from all sides. It would extend coverage of the law to specifically include economic and industrial development authorities. It would allow requests to be made to agency heads as well as open records officers. And it would impose more realistic response times of 10 days for requests made by U.S. mail, in contrast to the five-day limit for electronic requests.
Here’s what’s problematic. It would become more difficult for the public to get records produced by private contractors on behalf of the government, such as bridge inspection reports performed for PennDOT. It would give covered agencies too much of an out, allowing them to go directly to court if they say a records request is “unduly burdensome.” It would extend new exemptions to volunteer fire and ambulance companies even though they typically contract with local governments.
Here’s what else it should accomplish. Make it clear that officials’ phone records, notes and calendars are public records. Make provisions so criminal investigative records could be opened after cases are closed. Strengthen the ability of the open records office to review material with the purpose of determining whether it is public or not.
Lawmakers return to Harrisburg next Tuesday, and they have a considerable amount of work to do to improve the open records law. If they get busy right away, they should be able to enact by June the changes that Pennsylvanians deserve.