Beware exemptions in effort to amend Open Records Law
Pennsylvania's Open Records Law is a rare achievement for the state Legislature, which hesitated for decades before finally striking a major blow for open government by passing the law in 2008.
Proving the public's thirst for data, the Open Records Office handled 2,188 appeals last year, compared with the 1,159 it handled in 2009, the law's first full year. Only 4 percent of those appeals came from media organizations while 59 percent were filed by private citizens, demonstrating that, given the opportunity, citizens will use it to help make their governments accountable.
Now Sen. Dominic Pileggi, a Republican from Chester County and original sponsor of the Open Records Law, plans to introduce amendments to it, a process that could improve the law but also poses the risk of diluting it.
Some of the proposed changes would codify, in the statute, matters that have been decided by the courts. For example, Pileggi would include language making it clear that records pertaining to private-sector contractors performing work that the government otherwise would perform, are public data. That was established by an open-records challenge brought by The (Scranton) Times-Tribune regarding concession contracts at PNC Field.
Those changes and others to increase transparency, such as bringing the four state-affiliated universities - Penn State, Pitt, Temple and Lincoln - under the disclosure requirements, would be welcome.
But an open amendment process also poses the prospect of mischief. Some school districts and municipal governments have complained about compliance costs since the law was implemented, for example. Transparency, however, is a fundamental duty of requirement of government, and costs to ensure it are more legitimate than other expenses that local governments incur without much thought, such as crafting huge retirement golden parachutes for retiring school superintendents.
After Pileggi launches the amendment process, he must carefully manage it to ensure that it leads only to greater transparency, rather than exemptions for local government.
Meanwhile, the case volume has overwhelmed the small staff at the state Office of Open Records. The office has asked for a budget increase of $400,000, to $1.8 million. Gov. Tom Corbett's proposed budget would provide less than half of that. Lawmakers should demonstrate their commitment to open government by providing the office with the resources it clearly needs.