New law aids access to government records in Pa.

AP News
Posted: Dec 21, 2009 1:35 PM

An overhaul of Pennsylvania's Right-to-Know Law, once one of the nation's weakest, has made it easier for the public to obtain access to records kept by agencies at all levels of government.

A spot check by dozens of new organizations, coordinated by The Associated Press, found improved compliance by government agencies across the state since the revisions a year ago. Advocacy groups also report better access.

"It is night and day from the old law," said Mary Catherine Roper, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer in Philadelphia who has been involved in cases this year seeking access to police and prison records. "This is a huge step forward for openness and accountability in government."

The state's old law was considered one of the least effective in the nation in assuring transparency in government, guaranteeing access only to certain categories of records. Now there is a presumption that most government records are open to public inspection, with a new Office of Open Records in place to settle disputes.

Records that previously were difficult and sometimes impossible to obtain are now being scrutinized by the public and news outlets, from internal e-mails and once-secret details in personnel files to 911 call logs and records in the hands of government contractors.

Many large state government departments report records requests from the public have doubled since the law took effect in January.

To test compliance, representatives from more than three dozen news organizations submitted nearly 300 requests for public records over two days in October, seeking everything from 911 logs and school superintendent contracts to grant applications and resumes of public employees.

The overwhelming majority of requests were granted. Audits in 1999 and 2005 found higher rates of rejection.

"It doesn't take a genius to game this law, it doesn't take a genius to deny information under this law," said Terry Mutchler, executive director of the Office of Open Records. "But we have also seen a lot of agencies absolutely determined to do the right thing."

Using the new law, the Erie Times-News obtained disciplinary records of a veteran school district employee during her campaign for school board. The Morning Call of Allentown reported how a school district lost millions of dollars through complex financial transactions. And The York Dispatch found wide disparities in how often county commissioners were showing up at the office, by examining records of electronic key card swipes.