Let the sun shine in
This week, The Associated Press provided media members with a three-part series of articles that detail the assault on openness in government in some states.
Although the series does not anecdotally refer to any specific abuses in Pennsylvania, this does not mean that there are none.
The media and taxpayers fight a never-ending battle with municipalities, school boards, counties and other public bodies to try to get information.
The state’s Right to Know Law, which has been in existence for nearly 10 years, was hailed when it was passed by legislators and signed by then-Gov. Ed Rendell as a new beginning in openness.
The law requires that a record in the possession of a state or local agency must be presumed to be a public record unless otherwise specified by the law.
This was a significant victory for advocates of governmental transparency, because it shifted the burden of proof from the public to the government. The agency must give a compelling reason why a record needs to be kept secret.
One example is because it would violate the privacy of a government employee by disclosing personal information or because it could compromise the security of an installation by making public the specifics of security measures.
The Open Records Law, as it is formally known, applies to all state agencies, the General Assembly (state House of Representatives and Senate) and state-related institutions, such as Penn State.
It also applies to the financial records of state courts and to all local agencies, including, but not limited to, municipal and county governments and agencies and school boards.
If you are wondering about some examples of what constitutes public records, here they are: name, title and salary of public officials and employees, final agency meeting minutes, communications between lobbyists and legislators, 911 time response logs and internal emails.
Examples of information that is not public include Social Security, driver’s license or employee numbers, home, cellular or personal phone numbers, personal financial information, spouse’s name, marital status, names of beneficiaries, home addresses of law enforcement officials and judges, autopsy report information other than name, cause and manner of death, records that identify social service payees, including welfare recipients, and a minor’s name, home address and date of birth.
Also key to this legislation was creation of the Office of Open Records to enforce the law with local agencies and serve as a resource to the public in obtaining public records.
Keep in mind, too, that the Right to Know Law is not just for members of the media. Any member of the public can use this law to obtain legitimate information.
The Right to Know Law should not be confused with the “Sunshine Act” or Open Meetings Act, as it is officially known.
This law was passed about 10 years earlier and states that the public has a right to be present at all meetings of state agencies at which agency business will be discussed or acted upon.
Public notice of these meetings must be advertised and minutes must be taken. Members of the public must be given reasonable opportunity to comment on matters that concern them before action is taken.
Exceptions to this law are executive sessions where an agency may privately discuss such things as personnel matters, labor negotiations and consultations with counsel about expected legal action.
Before a governmental body goes into executive session during an open meeting, it must disclose the general topic to be discussed in private.
The courts have recognized that the public’s right to know what their government is doing is protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, a democracy cannot function without government transparency and the ability of the people to hold elected and appointed officials accountable.
By Bruce Frassinelli | email@example.com