By David S. DeRose, Esq.
A new right to know law in Pennsylvania took effect on January 1, 2009.
Although Pennsylvania has had an open records law since the late 1950’s, the scope of that law was never clear, and it was not applied uniformly throughout the state. The changes to the act make it clear that all records kept by local and state governments are presumed to be accessible to the public, with some exceptions. If a government entity desires to keep a record private, the burden will be on that entity to prove why that record should not be open to the public. It is no longer the burden of citizens to prove that a record should be accessible.
For example, a citizen may approach a borough council or township supervisor to obtain revenue and spending information, minutes of a public meeting, public contract or public salary information. If access is denied, an appeal can be filed with the newly created Office of open records, which will decide if the municipality is correct. The office of open records serves municipalities by providing information on implementing the provisions of the act, issuing advisory opinions, and establishing an informal mediation program that will hopefully resolve many of the disputes that could arise.
Under the law, each municipality in Pennsylvania is to name an open records officer who will administer the act. In this manner, the law seeks to provide uniformity within a particular municipality in how information is provided to the public. As under the old law, there are sure to be concerns by municipalities about disclosing any information concerning certain types of criminal or civil investigations that could constitute an invasion of someone’s privacy or in some way deprive an individual of a fair trial. There are also concerns about disclosing any information that would lead to a substantial risk of endangering anyone’s personal security. Social Security numbers, personal telephone numbers, psychiatric reports and performance reviews are not public information.
In any event, the new open records law is designed to create greater access by the public to government and its records, and hopefully put an end to any “closed door policies” that may have been perpetuated by some government entities.