Essential Pittsburgh
2:24 pm
Fri March 14, 2014

The Impact of the Open Records Law, Five Years Later

Five years ago Pennsylvania's Open Records law was changed to increase transparency of government agencies.
Credit Jenni C / Flickr

Five years ago Pennsylvania's Open Records law was changed, with the promise of ensuring more information would be made more easily available to the public. The new law is generally seen as a positive for the Commonwealth, but open records officials and some people who use the law see room for improvement.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter, Rich Lord, says, “When the new law took effect in the beginning of 2009, there was an opening up, there was a feeling in agencies that, 'hey now the presumption is that I've got to give it over, so I may as well give it over' that has gradually shifted over the last five years. Agencies have been looking, I think, or at least focusing less on that presumption of openness than on the 30 exemptions in the law. Agencies have appeared to view the law in recent years as a tool for coming up with reasons not to disclose rather than a requirement to disclose or an encouragement to disclose."

The agencies that Lord mentions are still reluctant to give up information is a concern for Pennsylvania State Senator Jay Costa, one of the law's original sponsors.

“I’m certainly disappointed to hear that there are still agencies out there that take that view. I’d like to know whether or not the view is a view that they take as it relates to the record they’re trying not to disclose as opposed to maybe the impact or the consequence or the hassle, so to speak, that it would be to generate some of these records. Because often times I think that is part of the problem.”

In this regard Costa says he hopes that agencies “will realize that records are open first and foremost unless there is an exemption that they can prove.”

Deanna's Greatest Hits

90.5 WESA reporter Deanna Garcia recently covered PA's open records law in a special report. She found that prisoners tend to be “frequent filers,” they make up about a third of the state's right to know requests. 

Garcia notes some of the typical and even strange requests cited by the Open Records head, Terry Mutchler:

Someone discovered a school district was paying salaries for several staff members, after they had been dismissed.

Someone discovered a school district was serving expired food to school children.

Another citizen was able to recoup money for a pothole they hit because it caused damage to their car.

One man was involved in a skirmish with law enforcement officials, which involved him resisting arrest; officers had to use violence to take him down. He filed an open records request to find out who shot him.

Another filer read a story from another state about monkeys being infected with a disease; that person then requested health records pertaining to monkeys in a city zoo in Pennsylvania. Zoo animal health records, however, are not subject to the law.

Then there was the case of a living man who requested a copy of his own autopsy report. “He either had a misunderstanding of what an autopsy report is or, uh, I’m not sure what happened there, that was an unusual one,” said Mutchler.

Materials That Can Be Requested Under PA Open Records Law

  • Papers
  • Letters
  • Maps
  • Books
  • Tapes
  • Photographs
  • Film
  • Sound recordings
  • Emails
  • Other work that is stored and/or maintained electronically

Agencies That Must Comply With Right to Know Requests

  • Any Pennsylvania office, department, authority or other parts of the executive branch, state-affiliated entities, independent agencies (including the Governor).
  • Any subdivision, intermediate unit, or charter, public trade or vocational school [or] local school, intergovernmental, regional or municipal agency, authority, council, board commission or similar governmental entity.
  • The Pennsylvania Senate, Pennsylvania House of Representatives, and many committees and commissions, for the complete list, see Section 102.
  • Any entity or office of the unified judicial system, like Magisterial District Judges