Appeal by 13 year old part of busy open records docket


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The state's Right-to-Know Law (RTKL), passed in 2008, remains a work in progress. The Office of Open Records (OOR), established by the legislation, continues to seek changes that further open access to government records.

The law shifted the burden of proof from the requester to the government entity when it comes to accessing records. It is now the latter's responsibility to prove a record shouldn't be available rather than the former's burden to prove it should be.

Whether it is that shift in responsibility or publicity from the law itself that has spurred more RTKL challenges, the OOR is a busy place.

In its 2012 annual report, the agency said it has faced an 89 percent increase in the number of appeals filed with it since 2009. The annual report showcases a "skyrocketing workload fueled in large part by the public's increased attentiveness to the what, how and why surrounding the actions of its government. It's astounding that after four years of record highs, our caseload keeps increasing."

The OOR is an independent quasi-judicial office that currently has 11 staff. Of those, six attorneys resolved all 2,188 appeals in 2012.

While it is often presumed the press most benefits from the RTKL, five years into this new era, it is the public at large that creates a majority of RTKL activity. And the public can mean someone as young as 13 years old, as a recent case details.

Amy Worden from The Philadelphia Inquirer reported Wednesday that a 13-year-old girl who had her request to see a contract for an after-school hip-hop dance program denied by the Chambersburg Area School District on the basis of her age won her appeal. The district had even threatened to hit the girl with legal fees if it won.

Interestingly, Worden's story also detailed how Commonwealth Court on Tuesday upheld a ruling by the open-records office in a long-running dispute between Gov. Tom Corbett and the Associated Press. A seven-member panel ruled unanimously that the governor's calendar and e-mail records are not exempt from the RTKL.

As Worden notes through her examples, the law is effective in protecting everyone, from a young teenager to the world's largest news-gathering organization.

Meanwhile, the OOR's skyrocketing workload may be poised to enter yet a higher orbit. A pending bill that has broad bipartisan support would lift the partial open records law exemptions for the four state-affiliated universities - Penn State, Pitt, Temple and Lincoln. Between 5 and 15 percent of each school's funding comes from the state government. All of that spending is accounted for through audits, but critics contend the universities should be subject to the same level of disclosure as the 14 state-owned and state-operated universities - a position that has gained support due to the Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse scandal.

That's good news for public access, but Terry Mutchler, OOR director, told Worden she figures the office could see as many as a thousand appeals seeking records connected to "the many tendrils" of the Sandusky case alone.

With the growing case-load, Mutchler is asking for an increase in her budget from $1.37 million to $1.8 million, but the governor has proposed just $1.41 million.

Not to pile more work on Mutchler and her staff, but it is simple to get started with a Right to Know request. Find the form and help on how to proceed at openrecords.state.pa.us; click on "Forms" along the left rail.

(Andy Heintzelman, editor of The News-Item, writes "The Week In News" for each Saturday edition.)

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