Senator Baker Issues Open Records Law Op-Ed

After a year of important debate, Pennsylvania’s 50-year-old Right-to-Know Law has been rewritten. I proudly supported this effort because it is the best good-government law approved since the modern Sunshine Law took effect in 1987.

A strong Right-to-Know Law must pass three tests. It must make more records more easily accessible, it must encourage compliance, and it must include sufficient enforcement provisions. On all three counts, Senate Bill 1 passes with flying colors.

Based on that, I must disagree with a recent Times-Leader editorial (“Senate’s Right-to-Know bill a step backward,” Feb. 11).

The greatest advantage in the new law is flipping the presumption of openness, so that all government records are presumed to be open unless they fall into one of the specific exceptions listed in the bill, or they are closed under another federal or state law. In the past, all government records in Pennsylvania were presumed to be unavailable unless a law specifically made them open.

The new law requires all government agencies to respond to requests within five days and strengthens penalties for failing to release public records. It establishes a new Office of Open Records to mediate disputes and to make appeals less costly and time-consuming.

When the Office of Open Records opens on January 1, 2009, citizens will have a much more user-friendly appeals system. The office has two primary responsibilities: to train officials on how to comply with the Right-to-Know Law, and to handle appeals when a request for access is denied.

Today, the next step for a citizen who is denied access to a record is to take the agency to court. That is expensive and time-consuming. Under the new law, it may be a rare case that requires a lawyer.

The law requires the Office of Open Records to issue advisory opinions to agencies and requesters – an important, cost-reducing step which is not available today. The office’s web site will feature contact information for every agency in the state in a single, easy-to-access location.

For those concerned about crime, the bill makes public the information contained in police blotters and traffic accident reports, and the time response logs of emergency dispatch centers. That enables citizens to learn about crimes occurring in their neighborhoods.

The legislation does create an exception to the general rule of openness for criminal investigations. This is common sense, because the Right-to-Know Law should not deprive any person of the right to a fair trial.

In drafting a responsible Right-to-Know Law, legislators must balance the public’s interest in disclosure with competing interests such as the expectation of privacy. Senate Bill 1 makes employment applications of individuals who are hired public records. It does not do the same for those who are not hired, because they are not public employees.

Regarding coroners’ records, Senate Bill 1 makes complete autopsy reports – which are full of deeply personal and sometimes gruesome details – non-public, but it does require the release of the name of a deceased individual, and the cause and manner of death. This is a good compromise, particularly since full autopsy reports can still be introduced as evidence at a criminal or civil trial.

Under the current law, agencies can charge unreasonable fees for records as a way to deny access to records. By giving the Office of Open Records the ability to set these fees, we are ensuring that such practices will come to an end.

The Pennsylvania Freedom of Information Coalition has called Senate Bill 1 a “huge step forward.” The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette said that “the new law takes giant steps beyond its antiquated predecessor,” and the Philadelphia Inquirer called it “a significant improvement over current law.”

I wholeheartedly agree.

We have produced a very good law that will open a wide range of records to citizens who will not have to pay a lot or go through complex legal proceedings to access what they want to see.

 Contact: Brian Grove
(570) 675-3931

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