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State report: Majority of open records requests involve local agencies

| Sunday, March 13, 2016, 11:00 p.m.

The state Office of Open Records handled nearly 3,000 appeals for public records last year, with the majority involving local government agencies, according to the office's annual report released today.

About 61 percent — 1,794 of the 2,926 appeals filed with the office — involved municipal governments, police and fire departments or schools. State agencies were involved in 1,132 appeals, the report found.

That shows that the people who used the Right-to-Know Law were most focused on information local to them, from their township or borough, school or municipal authority, said Erik Arneson, the office's executive director.

The Office of Open Records is the quasi-judicial state agency that enforces Pennsylvania's Right-to-Know Law. When public agencies deny information or don't respond to requests, people can appeal to the office for free.

Among local agencies, 36 percent of appeals involved people seeking records from cities, boroughs and townships; 22 percent involved police and fire departments; 21 percent involved counties and 14 percent involved school districts or charter schools, the report showed.

“That surprised me. I would have thought (schools) would be higher,” said Arneson.

Arneson said many of the agency's 54 training sessions held in 2015 sought to educate local officials on the ins and outs of the Right-to-Know Law and relevant court cases.

“From what we see, (local officials) are doing better — they understand the law much better today than they did in 2009” when it took effect, Arneson said. “There's still room for improvement.”

Arneson said the basic documents people request, such as financial records or meeting minutes, are rarely an issue.

“The ones we get tend to have some sort of a wrinkle to them,” Arneson said.

But Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, said she still hears stories of “nonsense” in which a local agency will make a person endure a 30-day legal review to determine that salary records are a public document.

“Those should be provided proactively to the extent possible,” Melewsky said. “Granted, I don't hear about it when things go right, because that's not the role we fill. Many agencies do it the right way.”

Sue Trout, city administrator and open records officer for Greensburg, said records requests can be time-consuming for that staff but that she tries to answer as many as she can without using the 30-day extension allowed under the law. Sometimes, though, the extra time is necessary to gather the records and redact bits of information the city deems is not public.

Trout said the majority of the city's requests are from businesses looking to sell their products or services.

“A lot of things citizens might want, we put online,” such as city budgets and other financial documents, Trout said. “We keep everything online to be as transparent as possible.”

The annual report — released on the first day of Sunshine Week, a national initiative to promote open and transparent government — provides a snapshot of who is most likely to file open records appeals and where.

The report also showed that prison inmates were the single largest category of records requesters, accounting for 1,414 appeals, or 48 percent. Others made up 39 percent, with companies filing 8 percent and the media accounting for just 5 percent.

In a new feature, the report breaks out the number of appeals per 100,000 in population. It shows that while Philadelphia and Allegheny County agencies were involved in the most appeals, on a per-capita basis they fall in the middle of the pack.

Carbon County had the highest per-capita appeals at 41.9 per 100,000 people. By comparison, Philadelphia had 12.4 and Allegheny County 11.3 per 100,000 people.

“I have no explanation on why Carbon County is so high,” Arneson said.

Kari Andren is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-850-2856 or kandren@tribweb.com.

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