Judge to rule in two weeks on Shamokin RTK case
WILLIAMSPORT - A Lycoming County judge expects to issue a ruling in about two weeks in the ongoing Right to Know legal case between the City of Shamokin and Northumberland County Commissioner Stephen Bridy.
Oral arguments were made Monday before Judge Richard Gray in Lycoming County Courthouse by the city's attorney, Chip Haws of Barley Snyder law firm in Reading, and Bridy's attorney, John Muncer.
Bridy is seeking individual-specific information on the cost of health benefits provided to city officials since 2006. An appeals officer of the state Office of Open Records ruled that the information should be public. The city disagrees and appealed to the Court of Common Pleas, with the case transferred to Lycoming County from Northumberland County after three judges recused themselves.
The city says the information sought by Bridy is exempt under state and federal privacy laws, and that Bridy's request was a "serial filing" related to four prior requests for the same figures that were denied to fellow county commissioner, Vinny Clausi. An appeal to the state Office of Open Records (OOR) by Clausi was also denied, thus negating Bridy's request since the city viewed them in concert.
"Forget all the statutory and procedural stuff. What's the harm in releasing this information to the public? Isn't that good government to get this information out?" Gray said.
Haws said the total premium amounts were disclosed to Clausi, as were the total number of employees as well as a split on the premiums paid on an individual rate and family rate. Individual specific information was not released.
The Right to Know law lists exemptions including a spouse's name, marital status, beneficiary or dependent information. Public disclosure relative to the medical records exemption tempers what information should be released, he said.
"The city has the view that if we were compelled to provide information for each employee and elected official that identifies whether their premiums were paid at an individual or family rate, that we're identifying their marital status or providing dependant or beneficiary information," Haws said. "We're either acknowledging that they're married or have dependents."
Gray said there's a "big distinction" between identifying if an elected official has family coverage versus identifying who is covered by such insurance.
"I don't think (the requester) is going to get that or expects to get that," he said.
"If you even acknowledge that there's a (spouse) by saying the person is at a family rate, you've potentially acknowledged there's a spouse," Haws said citing the Right-to-Know law. "If (the law is) intended to be construed broadly, I think our legal argument has credibility."
Muncer worked to discredit assertions that Clausi and Bridy were acting in tandem. The board of commissioners had no vote on the matter and did not decide as a governmental entity to take this action, he said, and Bridy is acting individually.
By the city's line of thought, if one state legislator acting independent of the entire legislative body sought such information and, like Clausi, saw his appeal denied because of a procedural error, than all legislators would be barred from making the same request.
"They're assuming that Mr. Bridy had total access to the response they gave to Mr. Clausi, and that is an assumption they don't have a right to make," Muncer said.
"The prior responses to Mr. Clausi's request were appended to the response to Mr. Bridy," Haws said.
"The meat of the argument," Muncer said, is the claim that the information is protected. His client specifically seeks financial information on how public tax dollars are being spent by the city. Bridy's not seeking information on medical histories or medical conditions, which would fall under "protected information." The financial information does not meet this standard, Muncer said.
Muncer revealed what the county pays for his health insurance annually as an individual recipient, $8,349.12.
"By giving you that information you don't know who the health insurance company is, you don't know who my health provider is, you don't know what I'm being treated for," Muncer said.
The Right to Know Law is in place to allow public scrutiny of government.
"Shouldn't the taxpayers who are footing the bill for this health insurance for each of them, shouldn't they be able to scrutinize how much money of their taxes are being (used for health insurance)?" he said.
Muncer said if the city did fear violating privacy regulations, they could have kept it simple: Simply release how much is paid for insurance for each elected official without acknowledging whether the coverage is for individuals or includes dependants.
"Tell us the figure because that's a benefit (given) to an elected official," he said.
Muncer stressed to the court that while he is employed full-time as Northumberland County's assistant solicitor, he is working privately for Bridy and took a vacation day to attend Monday's court procedure.
Gray said it appears he has a "clean request" from Bridy. That Bridy did make his request through the county commissioners office, the judge questioned whether that should be a matter for the courts or "the people that elected Mr. Bridy."