Should the state help volunteer fire companies? Yes. Let them shield their records from the public? No | Mark O’Keefe

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Even when the the Legislature does something right, it often manages to do something questionable in the process.

The latest such issue involves the state House of Representatives, which passed a series of bills last week to try to ease the growing shortage of volunteer firefighters and emergency medical service workers across the state.

Among the measures approved for first responders in the 18-bill package were a:

  • loan forgiveness program for students or graduates of Pennsylvania higher education institutions.
  • tax abatement program authorizing school districts and counties to offer property tax credits.
  • tuition assistance program.
  • program establishing online training programs for firefighters.

All of those sound like good ideas. More troubling, however, was a measure, passed on a 166-34 vote, that would exempt fire departments from complying with the state’s Right-to-Know Law.

It’s certainly not clear how a bill designed to keep records secret would do anything to attract more people into becoming firefighters and ambulance workers. If anything such secrecy could be a detriment toward recruiting new members. After all, who wants to join an organization that shields its records from the public?

The measure included some heated debate from lawmakers, according to a report by Katie Meyer, of WITF-FM, in Harrisburg.

Meyer reported that the measure’s sponsor, Rep. Lee James, a Venango County Republican, said volunteer fire departments have more important things to do than respond to requests for information.

The essence of the bill is to relieve the firefighters, let them do training, and let them go fight fires and get them out of the office on frivolous Right to Know requests,” James said, according to Meyer’s report.

She reported that Rep. Tony Deluca, a Democrat from Allegheny County took aim at the Right-to-Know law and the media in general.

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Volunteer fire departments, he said, “don’t need somebody coming in and making a complaint, the papers blowing it up, and all of a sudden their contributions, how they survive, go down. That’s wrong.”

Meyer reported that another Democrat, Rep. Greg Vitali, of Delaware County, disagreed.

He said since the departments are mostly government-funded, they should by definition be subject to the Right-to-Know law. Plus, he said, many records might be closed off to the public if fire departments are exempt from the law.

This goes to basic health and safety issues,” Vitali said. “A community should know how their fire companies are doing as far as response times go. That’s very basic information.”

Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, sides with Vitali.

She noted that a study done several years ago by a legislative committee concluded that most government agencies, including fire departments, aren’t being overwhelmed with information requests.

The study dispelled that notion,” said Melewsky. “There were these claims that agencies were being inundated with Right-to-Know requests, but that’s not what’s happening.”

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Furthermore Melewsky said it’s very important for the public to be able to look at the financial records of fire departments.

This issue is extremely important because fire departments perform such a significant public service and they receive so much in funds from taxpayers,” said Melewsky.

There has to be some level of public accountability,” she added.

The Right-to-Know law was passed by the state Legislature in 2008 and signed into law by Gov. Ed Rendell. It took effect on Jan. 1, 2009. Prior to 2008, it was presumed that government records weren’t public unless established otherwise. Under the new law, it was assumed that all government records were public unless they were specifically excluded by the law.

There have been numerous court battles over the years as the culture of silence which pervaded Pennsylvania over the years was harder to crack than many imagined.

Melewsky said fire departments have been opposed to being included in the Right-to-Know law since it was first passed.

This is nothing new,” said Melewsky. “After the Right-to-Know law was passed, there were several court rulings which said that the law applied to all government agencies including fire departments. They opposed it then and they’re still against but there is public funding involved and there has to be some accountability.”

The measure now goes to the Senate. A spokesman for Gov. Tom Wolf told the Associated Press that the governor hasn’t decided if he’ll sign the bill.

Melewsky said she’s not sure if the state Senate will pass the bill or not, but she said her association will do all it can to prevent its passage.

This is a very important issue, and we’ll be working very hard on it,” Melewsky said.

Capital-Star Opinion contributor, Mark O’Keefe, of Mechanicsburg, Pa., is the former editorial page editor of the Herald-Standard, of Uniontown, Pa. His work appears biweekly.