For State-Related Schools, Open Records Chief Sees (Sun) Light Ahead

Jul 23, 2013

A recent state court ruling is forcing the issue of transparency at one of Pennsylvania's four state-related universities.

Penn State, Pitt, Temple and Lincoln universities are largely exempt from the commonwealth's 5-year-old open records law providing public access to government information. It was for that very reason that the Office of Open Records dismissed an appealed records request filed by Ryan Bagwell.

He wanted records pertaining to one of Penn State's ex-officio board members (former state Education Secretary Ron Tomalis). The OOR said it didn't have jurisdiction.

The Commonwealth Court on Friday yanked the OOR back on the case of Bagwell's appeal, ordering further review.

"We welcome the guidance," OOR Executive Director Terry Mutchler said to reporters at a Harrisburg Press Club luncheon Monday. "Any time that we are overturned and more access is given, I'm happy about that."

State lawmakers are in the midst of proposed changes to the Right-to-Know law that brought Mutchler's office into being and provides greater public access to government records. How to bring state-related universities under the law has proved to be a big challenge. A proposed omnibus bill in the Senate is silent on the schools.

Mutchler said it's still unclear exactly how lawmakers will let the sun shine in. There's an active debate about whether to make the schools comply with all open records requests, or somehow connect requests to the state funding they actually receive. Still, Mutchler said she the schools are in for a change soon.

"I believe that it will happen," Mutchler said. "I believe that it will happen in the fall. Whether it's going to be an outright coverage — I don't know the answer to that."