It’s Sunshine Week in Pa.: Here’s how we’ve been helping to shine a light on government | Opinion

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By Erik Arneson

Sunshine Week, which started Sunday, is an annual nationwide celebration of access to public records. Pennsylvanians have reason to join the celebration.

Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law, which went into effect just over 10 years ago on Jan. 1, 2009, has provided access to many thousands of government records which never would have been released under the previous law. In 2015, the Center for Public Integrity ranked Pennsylvania fourth in the nation for public access to information.

Improving public access to information was exactly the goal of then-Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi when he authored the bill. As his then-policy and communications director, I’m proud to have played a role in seeing that bill become law.

I won’t pretend the Right-to-Know Law is perfect. It’s strong, but it can be stronger. I support numerous bills introduced in the General Assembly, and some not yet introduced, to amend the law.

Some examples: Campus police departments should be subject to the Right-to-Know Law. Agencies should be able to charge commercial requesters for the staff time it takes to prepare responses. And the results of safety inspections, like those done on elevators, should absolutely be public records.

When the law first went into effect, we heard plenty of stories about agencies with no interest in transparency. We still hear those stories – but far less often than 10 years ago. Progress has been made, and progress continues.

This week, the Office of Open Records implemented a new policy of sending a letter to every agency which does not respond to a Right-to-Know request and then fails to participate in the subsequent appeal before the OOR.

The letter explains that after the city of Reading and the city of Chester each followed that pattern in numerous cases, the OOR issued formal findings of bad faith. And that a judge then ordered Reading to pay more than $12,000 in legal fees to a requester.

My hope is that agencies which are not living up to their obligations under the Right-to-Know Law will read the letter, understand the potential consequences of what they’re doing, and take a different course in the future. That may sound naive, but the early returns are promising. The first two letters were sent on Monday, and both agencies contacted the Open Records Office that same day to begin a dialogue.

Also this week, the Open Records Office released the results of a new statewide survey of Agency Open Records Officers. Those are the people charged with responding to Right-to-Know requests, so they have the best view of the request landscape.

More than 1,000 open records officers responded to the survey, including agencies of all types and in every one of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties. I appreciate the time they took to respond, because the data can provide an excellent statewide perspective.

We learned that for nearly 92 percent of agencies it takes less than five hours per week to respond to Right-to-Know requests, but that for some agencies it takes more than 20 hours per week. That the median number of requests received in 2018 was 13.5, barely more than one per month. And that the news media accounts for just 3.8 percent of requests made.

The complete survey data can be downloaded from our Open Records in Pennsylvania blog, OpenRecordsPennsylvania.com.

Making the data freely available means anyone interested in knowing more can review, for example, responses from school districts or state agencies. You can sort the data by county or analyze it to see which agencies received the most commercial requests. I’m sure you can create reports I’ve never considered. I hope you do.

If you use our survey data to study how the Right-to-Know Law is working across Pennsylvania, please let me know. I’d also love to hear about your experiences with the law, whether from a requester perspective or an agency perspective, and any questions you have about the Right-to-Know Law or the Sunshine Act (Pennsylvania’s open meetings law).

I’m easy to reach. For a public conversation, tweet @ErikOpenRecords. If you prefer email, our general email address is [email protected] or you can reach me directly at [email protected]

I look forward to hearing from you.

Erik Arneson is the executive director of the Office of Open Records. He writes from Harrisburg.

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