The notion of public information isn’t a difficult concept. Almost all government information, with very few exceptions for valid reasons, belongs to the public. But even now, a decade after the state Legislature passed a public disclosure law that finally ended the state’s status as the least transparent in the land, many public officials continue to try to keep the public in the dark.
This is Sunshine Week, a national observance of the importance of transparency in government. It’s a great opportunity for the Legislature to begin a revision of the Open Records Law to further enhance public access.
Prior to the law’s passage in 2008 and implementation in 2009, anyone seeking a public record faced the burden and expense of proving that the record was subject to disclosure. The most important change that the law implemented was a reversal of that standard. Now, the presumption is that a government-held record is a public record, and the burden is on the government to demonstrate that a contested record is exempt from disclosure.
It took not only the new statute but contested cases over the following decade to fully implement the law. The Times-Tribune, for example, scored a landmark victory in 2012, when the state Supreme Court ruled unanimously that records held by a private contractor for the government are public records, if the company performs work that the government otherwise would perform. The ruling meant that governments could not hide public documents behind private-sector contracts.
Other news organizations also have prevailed in court. In one case, for example, the Supreme Court found that public records remain so even if they become part of a criminal prosecution.
There is no doubt that the law has forced local governments to be much more transparent. But that does not mean that access to public information is as easy as it should be.
Many local governments require written right-to-know requests, even though the law does not require them. Since most public information is routine, local officials could release most of it upon request. Instead, they require a submitted form. The law gives them five days to respond and the right to seek 30-day extensions. Too many local officials make that 35-day window the norm for their own convenience, or to thumb their noses at people or news organizations looking for information. The law should severely limit those extensions, require those officials to provide a written explanation for invoking them and provide penalties for unwarranted delays.
Sen. John Blake, the Lackawanna County Democrat, will try for the fourth straight legislative session to improve the law. The Senate has passed the changes in the past but they have died in House committees.
The 10th anniversary of the Right To Know Law truly will be a celebration if the House finally agrees to let in more sunshine.
The above editorial was published March 12 by The (Scranton) Times-Tribune.