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Commonwealth Court ruling gives Office of Open Records authority to explore Center files

| Saturday, June 28, 2014, 3:28 p.m.

A Commonwealth Court ruling last week against a Butler County community would give the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records teeth as it tries to enforce the state's Right-to-Know law and make government documents more accessible to the public.

The court ruled that the Open Records office has jurisdiction to examine government documents from Center and decide whether releasing them publicly would violate attorney-client privilege or attorney work-product doctrine, the principle that allows lawyers to keep their arguments private from opposing counsel as they prepare for trial.

Center solicitor Mike Gallagher said he was disappointed with the ruling.

“I view the decision of the Commonwealth Court as infringing on the right of supervisors to have private legal counsel,” he said.

Terry Mutchler, OOR executive director, hailed the decision as “one of the single most significant decisions that has come down in the six-year history of the law.”

Citizens no longer have to take an agency at face value when it says records need to be kept secret, she said.

The decision arose from an open-records request made last year in Center by former township supervisor Beverly Schenck, who has since become a public information activist.

“Well I was very pleased,” Schenck said about the ruling. “Without that information, it's impossible for the OOR to do its job.”

Schenck filed an open records request in May 2013 with the township for the solicitor's invoices from December 2012 to April 2013.

The township provided Schenck with a copy but with many important figures removed.

Schenck appealed to the OOR to conduct an “in camera” review, a private hearing where a judge reviews submitted documents to decide if they are suitable for public release.

The township refused to provide the documents to the OOR, saying the documents were exempt from the state Right-to-Know law because their release would violate attorney-client privilege and attorney work-product doctrine.

The Open Records office then asked Center to provide a log explaining which invoices could not be released and why.

Center refused to submit the documents, saying the state office did not have the authority to demand them.

The Open Records office appealed to Commonwealth Court in October 2013.

On Tuesday, the court ruled in favor of the Open Records office, holding that it has the authority to demand documents from public officials.

The court's decision, written by Judge Patricia McCullough, concluded the purpose of the Right-to-Know law is to allow the public to review government doings and hold officials accountable.

The Open Records office, the court decided, has jurisdiction to apply parts of the law.

“We conclude that when the circumstances warrant it, and upon request by one of the parties, the OOR has the implied authority to order the production of documents for in camera review,” McCullough wrote.

Gallagher said he will brief Center supervisors and present legal options for consideration at the next supervisors' meeting on July 9.

The township has until July 24 to comply with the court's ruling or appeal.

Schenck said she initially filed the request for Gallagher's invoices because she was interested in seeing expenses for several cases, but the judge's ruling has an impact far beyond Center.

“It's not about simply these records,” she said.

“It's about every record in the state of Pennsylvania and the right of the people to know what they're paying for.”

Corinne Kennedy is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7823 or ckennedy@tribweb.com.

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