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Lobbyists could be forced to open records

| Monday, Oct. 15, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

HARRISBURG — Organizations that lobby on behalf of townships and other political bodies could be subject to the state's open records law and forced to publicly share documents that pertain to those associations and state government.

The state's Open Records office ruled that the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors is a “local agency” and subject to complying with requests for records filed by residents, the media and others. The association filed an appeal in Cumberland County Court.

Should the Open Records office's opinion be upheld, it could require a host of similar associations to open their records and documents to Right to Know requests involving communications between these associations and state government, said John L. Gedid, a professor at Widener Law School.

The Pennsylvania County Commissioners Association, Pennsylvania League of Cities and Municipalities, Pennsylvania Boroughs Association and the Pennsylvania School Boards Association are examples of organizations that could be affected, said Gedid, director of the school's Law and Government Institute.

“It is quite possible that the court could find that townships are supposed to exchange information with the Legislature, and thus this is an activity directly related to the duties of the townships,” Gedid said.

“Government entities cannot privatize activities to shield (themselves) from the Right to Know Law,” he said. “An argument could be made that the association is used for that purpose, to prevent the public from knowing what the lobbying activities of townships are.”

The decision by the Open Records office was prompted by four Right to Know requests filed in July by Walter Brasch of Bloomsburg.

In a finding issued Sept. 4, Open Records Appeals Officer Benjamin Lorah determined that the association falls under the Right to Know Law as a local agency, because the General Assembly created the association.

The association's appeal said the finding is inconsistent with past decisions by the state Open Records office.

Terry Mutchler, executive director of the state Open Records office, cited an earlier finding by her office that a private organization, the East Stroudsburg University Foundation, falls under Right to Know as supporting Lorah's conclusion on the association. State appellate courts have upheld the East Stroudsburg ruling, she said.

Mutchler said the association couldn't have fallen under the state's old open-records law. But the version in place is “one of the most far reaching” in the country, she said.

Gedid said no matter how a Cumberland County judge rules, the dispute will almost certainly be appealed to higher state courts.

Dan Miller is a staff writer for the Harrisburg Patriot-News.

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