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The public's right to know: Law with no bite

| Sunday, April 6, 2003

A long-fought court battle over a secretive sexual-harassment settlement involving Westmoreland County's Housing Authority and its former executive director has been quite revealing. It shows, among other things, the narrow scope of Pennsylvania's Right-To-Know law, which has few teeth and precious little bite.

This case clearly is a matter of public concern: A monetary settlement was paid, hushing allegations of improprieties that could violate federal law and could cost public money. Two courts have upheld the Tribune-Review's position that the settlement is a public record; a ruling from the state's Supreme Court is pending. The housing authority and its insurance company argue that the settlement is not a public record.

In Pennsylvania, any government record is presumed to be secret unless it falls under the Right-to-Know law's tiny umbrella. It's no wonder open-record advocates consider Pennsylvania's law to be one of the weakest in the nation.

By way of comparison, here's a look at the preamble to West Virginia's Freedom of Information law -- and how the roles of "the people" and "government" are delineated:

"Pursuant to the fundamental philosophy of the American constitutional form of representative government, which holds to the principle that a government is the servant of the people, not the master of them, it is hereby declared to be the public policy of the state of West Virginia that all persons are, unless otherwise expressly provided by law, entitled to full and complete information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of those who represent them as public officials and employees." That is precisely as it should be.

Pennsylvanians don't have to settle for a toothless watchdog. They can press their state lawmakers to enact meaningful reform of the state's Right-To-Know law.

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