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Man's barrage of public record requests forces Monroeville to hire more help

Dillon Carr
| Friday, May 11, 2018, 12:48 p.m.
John Yakim is shown here during a beekeeping demonstration at Monroeville Community Library in 2017.
Lillian DeDomenic | For The Tribune Review
John Yakim is shown here during a beekeeping demonstration at Monroeville Community Library in 2017.

Monroeville plans to hire a part-time open records officer because officials say they can't keep up with the deluge of Right-to-Know requests coming from a single resident.

John Yakim, 53, owner of Yakim's Compounding Pharmacy in Pitcairn and a hobbyist beekeeper, submitted 41 percent of the 1,230 Right-to-Know requests Monroeville has received since 2009, according to Monroeville Human Resources Director Joe Sedlak.

Sedlak, who makes $76,000 a year, dedicates up to an entire workday each week to dealing with Yakim's requests.

“Now, it's his constitutional right to file as many RTKs as he wants,” said Tim Little, Monroeville's municipal manager. “But in the same token, if John had not filed so many RTKs, we most likely wouldn't be entertaining hiring another person. Because some of those requests can be cumbersome to fulfill.”

Monroeville plans to pay the part-time secretary and open records officer $14.95 an hour. So far, seven people have applied.

Yakim, who ran as a Republican for Monroeville Council in 2011 but lost, said hiring another person to process requests is an attempt to intimidate him and others who make legitimate requests.

“(My requests) are public documents,” he said. “They should just put them online, on their website.”

Yakim shares some of what he learns from his requests on a closed Facebook group that has almost 200 members, “Monroeville-Demand Fiscal Accountability of Our Local Government.”

He has filed 506 requests since 2009. The rest came primarily from reporters, residents, business developers and lawyers.

“He's trying to hold the government accountable,” said Elisa Beck, a founding member of Sustainable Monroeville, an environmental advocacy group. “We're trying to get the government to tell us what they know. We, the people, are paying their salaries.”

Yakim's requests typically seek copies of invoices for police, fire and EMS-related purchases and emails and letters. One 2017 request sought a DVD of the Nov. 2, 2017, budget meeting. When Monroeville granted the request and directed Yakim to its YouTube channel, where the more than three-hour meeting is available , Yakim appealed to the Office of Open Records, insisting Monroeville should provide a DVD. He lost.

In a 2016 request, Monroeville replied that it didn't have documents Yakim wanted about a discussion involving its home-rule charter. Yakim appealed, arguing the municipality didn't prove it searched thoroughly. OOR sided with Yakim.

“I don't think anyone thought it would take this much time in a day,” Sedlak said of the requests and appeals.

Surrounding municipalities don't field nearly as many requests.

Plum receives an average of about 65 requests a year, according to officials. In Penn Hills it's 25. Monroeville records show requests hovered around 40 until 2012 when there were 129. Since then, it has received about 169 per year; but fielded 223 last year.

“There is no limit in the law on how many requests should be made, and I don't believe there should be,” said Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association.

Monroeville has denied Yakim's requests 32 times since 2009. He appealed to the Office of Open Records and 23 have been upheld. Monroeville, in turn, appealed the office's rulings. The nine remaining cases are under review.

Robert Wratcher, Monroeville's solicitor, charges the municipality $150 per hour for services, which includes litigation related to RTK requests, in addition to his $16,250 monthly retainer. Council budgeted $222,000 for legal services in 2018.

In an effort to prevent 23 hearings, Court of Common Pleas Judge Terrence O'Brien is helping Yakim and Monroeville explore a settlement.

Wratcher said the reason the municipality appealed OOR's decision is simple: It disagrees that some of the documents Yakim is seeking should be public. In some cases, Wratcher said, the documents don't exist.

“And in some cases we provided affidavits (to verify facts) and they say it's not specific enough. The municipality thinks they have not given us fair review. That's why we want a (judicial) review done,” Wratcher said.

Dillon Carr is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-871-2325, or via Twitter @dillonswriting.

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