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Bill would limit open access to state records

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Monday, Oct. 29, 2007

HARRISBURG -- A state House bill would allow government officials to refuse people access to public documents if they believe a taxpayer is attempting to "harass the agency."

The state's existing open records law, considered one of the weakest in the nation, does not allow public officials to deny people access to documents for this reason.

The legislation by Rep. Tim Mahoney, D-Uniontown, is "a step backwards" for Pennsylvania, said Deborah Musselman, lobbyist for the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association.

Critics say the harassment language is subjective and would allow officials to deny access to records if they don't like someone or if they feel overburdened with requests for records.

Dennis Baylor, co-founder of the Pennsylvania Accountability Project, called the provision "ridiculous."

"If you go in twice for a record, they'll say it's harassment," said Baylor of Hamburg, Berks County. "They just don't want to do the work. They're afraid of an onslaught of people seeking records."

"It's one of the provisions we've flagged as a problem," said Melissa Melewsky, media law counselor for the newspaper association. "One of the problems we have is it is subject to wide interpretation."

Mahoney, a strong advocate of open records, said either he or Democratic Rep. Josh Shapiro of Montgomery County will offer an amendment that knocks out the harassment language. Mahoney said he didn't realize the language was in his bill.

"I'm taking that out, first thing," Mahoney said.

It is one of many problems the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association sees with the House bill. The bill also seeks "unprecedented exemptions, including broad exemptions for correspondence and all e-mail," said Tim Williams, association president.

Musselman said the bill attempts to establish "legislator-constituent privilege."

The House bill applies to future records, not those covered under the existing law.

An open records bill in the Senate does not contain "harassment" language. The Senate proposal says records can be denied if repeated requests are made and it creates an "unreasonable burden on the agency."

A hearing is scheduled today on the Senate bill by Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware County. The Senate State Government Committee will consider the bill, which Williams considers a step toward making "Pennsylvania government more open and accountable to its citizens."

House Majority Leader Bill DeWeese, D-Greene County, said, "I'm confident that once our debate concludes and we work out differences with the Senate and governor's office, Pennsylvania will have a new open records law that is responsive to the needs of our citizens while maintaining the appropriate level of privacy that people expect when dealing with their state legislator."

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